The recent annual report released by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan described the state of higher education in Pakistan in one sentence “The focus has not been on the promotion of higher education, but on legal battles and survival issues.” The report, like that of the previous year, stated that higher education remained neglected and according to Quacquarelli Symonds-(QS) World Universities Rankings for the year 2017 saw only one of our 180 plus universities included in the top 500 universities. In the World University Ranking for 2017, issued by Times Higher Education, one Pakistani university made it to the top 500, whereas only two universities were included in the top 800. This state of affairs in unsurprising. Despite the passage of over seven years, all the federating units and other territories have not constituted their own higher education commissions. Under the 18th Amendment, the provincial governments were supposed to establish their own higher education commissions (HECs). Until now, only the Punjab and Sindh have set up their own HECs, while Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir have failed to make any substantial progress on this front even in 2017.
In Pakistan, the number of recognized universities has been increased to 188 with more than 110 additional countrywide campuses. Out of them, only 19% of universities are federally charted universities while the majority of the universities, 81% (152 out of 188) are charted by provincial governments. Like the other federations, the universities established by provincial authorities are being governed by the provincial governments.
Prior to 18th Constitutional Amendment (2010) education under the entry No. 38 “Curriculum, Syllabus, Planning, Policy, Centers of Excellence and Standards of Education” was in the concurrent legislative list and it remained as a joint function of federal and provincial governments. Federal government regulated higher education through Federal Higher Education Commission (HEC) for which HEC Ordinance 2002 was enacted. With the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, education was shifted to the legislative and executive jurisdiction of the provinces. Meanwhile, a new entry at No. 12 of Federal Legislative List Part-II was inserted into the constitution i.e “Standards in Institutions for Higher Education and Research, Scientific and Technical Institutions.” which falls under the purview and domain of Council of Common Interests (CCI) as joint/shared responsibility of both the Federal and Provincial governments.
Realizing the role of the provincial governments’ in higher education sector under 18th Constitutional Amendment, Sindh and Punjab, being two most populous provinces, established their respective provincial higher education commissions through Act of Assembly but it was opposed by the leadership of federal HEC declaring it in violation of Supreme Court orders which resulted in tussle among the federal and provincial entities. This tussle adversely affected performance of higher education sector. The relationship among the federal HEC and provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh was further drained when a meeting of vice-chancellors was convened by federal HEC during the first week of January 2018 at Lahore without taking Punjab government on board to discuss devolution of the commission in the light of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Showing serious reservations over the agenda of the meeting which was already under deliberation by the sub-committee constituted by Council of Common Interests (CCI), Punjab and Sindh provinces barred their vice-chancellors to attend the meeting.
As a shift from earlier four years policy, during last week, for the first time since the establishment of Punjab HEC in October 2014, the representative of Federal HEC not only attended the meeting of governing body of PHEC but also agreed to work in a more significant way. Executive Director federal HEC, Dr Arshad Ali himself represented Federal HEC at the PHEC commission meeting in Lahore. During last four years, no representative from federal higher education body attended any meeting of PHEC despite the fact, PHEC Act mentions the representation of Federal HEC in its governing body, commission. The relationship between the two organizations remained cold as federal HEC did not accept the existence of provincial higher education body established by the most populous province of the country with the largest network of more than 55 public and private sector universities along with more than 1000 colleges. Earlier, last month Punjab HEC chairperson Prof Dr. Mohammed Nizamuddin visited HEC Secretariat Islamabad over the invitation of HEC Executive Director where both of them agreed to undertake joint ventures and steps to improve quality of teaching and research. They also established four members joint committee over the issue of poor quality of M.Phil and PhD thesis in the light of a letter written by Governor of Punjab to the vice chancellors of the provincial universities. The academic circles appreciated the gesture from both the sides and hoped that joint efforts would be greatly helpful in promoting higher education in Pakistan.
The multiple challenges being faced by Pakistani higher education sector can be effectively dealt through meaningful and collaborative continuous engagement among federal and provincial higher education bodies. They need to undertake joint steps focusing over improving quality of teaching and research in higher education, the inclusion of Pakistani universities among top-ranked international and regional universities, playing a facilitative and supportive role to universities through catering their growing needs. It is only possible through harmony and respecting one another’s constitutional and legal role/mandate and above all ensuring personalities are not above the institutions.
As a federal country having central and provincial governments, Pakistan also needs to learn from other federations’ experiences. As per the QS ranking 2016, among the top five countries with strongest higher education systems in the world, four countries are federations with the effective role of federating units in the higher education sector. According to a study titled “Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations” conducted by the Forum of Federation, a Canada-based institute, in most of the federal countries (10 out of 12), the primary responsibility for governing, funding of public sector HEIs and approval of new academic programs lie with federating units.
Learning from international best practice and effective liaison among federal and provincial governments can also be greatly helpful in promoting and consolidating higher education in Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.