These days, there is a lot of talk about the autonomy of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), universities and other academic institutions. The concept of autonomy seems to be invoked in any issue in which the government side differs from the academic side. But autonomy comes with responsibility, and this responsibility is much more for a publicly funded institution - something that is not always appreciated fully without understanding the dynamics of power politics and social needs in the globalising world.

Broadly speaking, the autonomy of an institution is the ability to take all decisions about its functioning (within the overall framework and laws of the country). For a publicly funded institution, however, full autonomy on finances is clearly not possible. Hence, while most will agree that in decisions relating to salary etc, the government that gives the funds will have a say, the call for autonomy almost always implies at least the ability to take all decisions related to academics.

Higher education governance relates to issues such as the relationship between the state and the institution; between academic self-governance and the participation of external representatives in institutional governing bodies; between the university and its constituent faculties. It nowadays is hardly conceivable without institutional autonomy and academic freedom of the seats of higher learning. Without autonomy no institution can excel, as there is an involvement of freedom to take decisions and design courses in accordance with the needs of a society.

In various states, autonomous institutions of higher education are guided by powerful governing bodies, ensuring their autonomy in every arena of their modus operandi. The implied autonomy rests on the assumption that the autonomy of institutions would not clash with the greater societal good or betterment. So the autonomy of an institution in the sense of having ability to take decisions itself is possible only if it understands and shoulders its larger responsibilities.

If the autonomy of higher institutions is proactive, then a larger society will understand what the institutions are doing, which will help preserve it. If an institution does not live up to its larger societal responsibilities and changes with time, then the changes which seem desirable for the larger society will be imposed upon it in a manner in which state at the time understands and interprets them, which can easily get influenced by politics.

Presently, the HEC is also facing the same dilemma. Time and again, its achievements have been downgraded and sometimes ridiculed by various academicians. But mostly its achievements are glossed over by shaky debates with cyclical logic. Its PhDs are labelled as not very useful scholars, its engineers are ridiculed as technicians and doctors as nurses.

Since the inception of the current democratic regime in 2008, the HEC is constantly under assault in various ways: its powers have been trimmed; its funds have been slashed. Now the government has moved one step forward to appoint a bureaucrat in the HEC to run its affairs in a bureaucratic way.

Furthermore, government intervention and bureaucratisation of an autonomous body would further stymie its functioning in various ways. One should not forget the idea of nationalisation of education sector by the Bhutto regime in 1970s. Nationalisation of educational institutions created a mess in the education system directed by the state policy, which was further exploited by the Ziaul Haq regime in the name of Islam and jihad.

The state-directed education system gave birth to a system without conceptual framework in Pakistan. It has not worked hitherto. It will further not work in the current global world, in the wake of information age and knowledge economy. Education without concepts is just like head without brain. India has coped with the globalising force through its educational system by transforming the structure of its higher education. It has established the National Knowledge Commission (NKC).

It is a high-level advisory body to the Prime Minister of India, with the objective of transforming India into a knowledge society. In its endeavour to transform the knowledge landscape of the country, the NKC has submitted around 300 recommendations on 27 focus areas during its three and a half year term.

It is worthwhile to note that NKC’s term has ended, but its recommendations are still being implemented at the central and state level. It is quite puzzling in Pakistan that the government is bent on removing the autonomy of the HEC - an already well established institution, ensuring transformation in the realm of higher education in conformity with global needs. At this juncture, the government must try to resolve this imbroglio and ensure HEC’s smooth functioning. It can only be possible if its institutional autonomy is ensured through its own mechanism of decision-making process.

The writer is the vice chancellor of the University of Gujrat. Email: drmnizamuddin@gmail.com