Plight of Higher Education in Pakistan
Despite many tall claims, the higher education sector in 2017 could not even maintain its state that it achieved in the preceding years. The higher education confronted significant problems including meagre funding, lack of academic freedom, the skimpy infrastructure and most importantly the undemocratic governing structure, which discourages teachers’ empowerment. Instead of policy making to bring positive changes in overall higher education, the HEC remained ambushed with petty glitches. According to QS ranking, only 3 universities are listed in top 800 universities of the world as compared to what we had 2 years back when our 6 universities marked in top 800 universities of the world. HEC also failed to bring any change in the education system. Still, a number of universities are working with incomplete acts/ordinances. The universities established during martial-law are still lacking senates and are being governed in an undemocratic fashion. Working without its 18 members governing board, the decisions are made in bureaucratic and ad-hoc fashions in the corridors of supreme academic body of the country. HEC has not published its progress report since 2014, the failures persist since the time current leadership assumed the charge.
Higher education budget was increased in financial year 2017-18. However, the budgetary allocation for education is still less than many south Asian countries. This year, most of the new development projects in the higher education sector have failed to get approval while universities remain devoid of critical infrastructures. Unlike the developed countries, the lack of involvement of the stakeholder specially the elected faculty has significantly marred the quality of higher education, rather shifted the focus to quantity only. The government is indulged in the rhetoric and the Higher Education Commission is involved in amplifying the government message of point scoring through establishment of new universities and laptop distribution schemes. Many universities are facing financial crunch causing delay in salaries as well, while HEC has spent millions on needless foreign tours along with two Vice-Chancellors conferences and a convention titled vision 2025. Such useless exercises without active participation of faculty and students – which were not even invited – are merely the wastage of time, resources and tax payers’ money. Country wide protests of more than 300 local and foreign PhD holders have been reported. On the contrary, HEC scholarships are being announced unabatedly without any need assessment. The commission has not conducted any impact assessment of already distributed scholarships where huge public funds have been exhausted. The public exchequer is being exuberantly spilled without any feasibility.
Furthermore, the universities should be a hub of critical thinking, and should be producing critical mass for the society they serve. Where not only teachers and students can express their ideas freely, but it should also engage civil society to debate on critical issues for their resolves. Perhaps, the freedom of expression is the most influential factor for emergence of academia as a driving force of the nation. Still freedom of expression is almost non-existent in many Pakistani universities. Repeated dictatorships and compromised democracies kept our society deprived of freedom of speech for long. Critical thinking and free speech is confronted by the leadership at universities and higher education. To arrange talks, one has to stride through many channels. Often, then discussions are circumscribed to boring and discouraging issues limiting the attendance of outsiders. It may not be expected from the university graduates to have critical thinking and presentation in such suffocating environment in the universities and institutes of higher education. Without provision of free speech, universities are merely a degree awarding factory rather than a repository of knowledge, and a seat for knowledge creation.
The most important factor affecting overall higher education environment is the governance model being executed at seats of higher learning. Huge irregularities have been observed during recent appointments of Vice-Chancellors (VCs) in the universities across Pakistan. Apparently, either the government is ignorant or deliberately appointing VCs who do not fulfill the criteria. The statutory bodies in the universities having democratic traditions are being sidelined by these VCs. The role of VC has become more of a subordinate to HEC or Chief Minister’s Secretariat rather than an academic and administrative leader of the seat for higher learning. Moreover, some universities are functioning without proper statutory bodies such as Quaid-e-Azam University, International Islamic University, COMSATS etc. The extension and ad hocism in the appointments of leadership at HEC and VCs have adversely affected progress of higher education in Pakistan.
Due to politically fixed term appointment, they are not the real stake holders but the teachers and students of the varsities. The Vice-Chancellors are holding high powers, the faculty complains lack of motivation due to irregular appointments/promotions, waning academic freedom and poor resources for teaching and research. The ratio of contractual appointments at administrative positions is at rampant in HEC as well as universities. Critical and policy decisions are being made through these contractual employees who don’t have any stakes at all, such contractual appointments are also violation of the verdicts of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Now it’s time to think over the root cause of the existing problems in higher education, which primarily is the lack of democratic norms in varsities. Reinventing the wheel is not a viable solution, the system being executed at top universities of world may be studied and adopted after taking the stakeholders into confidence. Political leadership is not willing to surrender their undemocratic authority grabbed by dictators to the lower level. Participatory democracy ensures meaningful contributions to decision-making by all the stakeholders as well as transparency.
The Higher Education governance model is based on dictatorial mindsets, the democracy should be restored in higher education as per 1973 constitution. The acts of old and well-established universities like Karachi University, Punjab University and Peshawar University are splendid and formed on the democratic norms. The act of each university should be revised according to the acts of these well-established universities with some university specific amendments. While formulating policies concerning higher education, the stake holders especially elected faculty should be taken on board. Existent closed door unilateral polices should be revisited, the role and scope of all higher education bodies should be redefined. All the authorities should work within their prescribed limits and as per their mandate prescribed in constitution of Pakistan.
The ad hocism and extension culture should be discouraged. Year 2018 is very important for higher education; the top leadership in higher education are going to complete their terms, including the chairman HEC and tens of vice-chancellors. It is high time to advertise all those positions and induct suitable persons on merit. The political appointments have already ruined higher education system in Pakistan. The HEC leadership as well as the Vice-Chancellors should present their progress to faculty and students each year. Such practice will bring transparency in the affairs of universities and is vital for the uplift of higher education. Prime Minister and President of Pakistan should take out some time to rescue the higher education; and at least appoint all higher education leadership on merit.
The establishment of the office of Higher Education Ombudsman may be an excellent step for maintaining the good governance in universities efficiently and effectively. The ombudsman office is essential for redressing the issues of teachers, students and other employees, which can save time and resources of stakeholders as well as making them accountable.
The writer is the elected President FAPUASA-Islamabad and works as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at International Islamic University Islamabad, Pakistan.