The performance of any higher education system can easily be assessed; how much universities are contributing towards socio-economic development of the country as autonomous and empowered centres of learning, ideas, creativity and innovation.
The newly appointed Chief of Higher Education Commission, Dr Tariq Banuri in his first formal interview has declared his intention to take three vital measures to help improve global ranking of Pakistani universities. He enumerated these measures as affording best and quality education to students, improving their faculty, and making universities autonomous and empowered. The Chairman also vowed on that he would devote his attention to strengthening universities and hoped this task would be undertaken within the available resources.
An autonomous and empowered university characteristically means a higher education institution which exercises independent control over its day-to-day measures and curriculum. It is generally associated with universities, institutions and implies that the funding agency or state does not have control over academic matters rather government institutions play a facilitative and supportive role to the universities and provide the required resources in order to bring the universities at par with international standards. Conversely, universities that are not autonomous generally have their academic programs, curriculum, controlled, and even dictated by the state or government agency regulating higher education. The autonomy of the universities has four main dimensions: academic, organisational, financial and staff autonomy. According to the higher education experts, in order to compete globally, universities must be independent, to hire the most suitable and qualified academic and administrative staff, and enter in national and international collaborations through joint academic programs and exchange of scholars without external pressures or interference. Only autonomous and empowered universities can guarantee true merit based system in admissions and appointments.
As per the latest estimates, the number of public and private sector universities has been increased to 188 with more than 110 regional campuses.
According to the recommendations prepared by the Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan March 2002, universities were termed as pillars of the higher education system. It was clearly stated that universities must have autonomy from all extraneous influences in order to govern and manage their academic, administrative, and financial functions. In particular, universities must have autonomy to develop their academic programmes; recruit, assess, and develop their faculty; and select, train and educate their students. The Task Force also rejected the idea of federal government for establishment of National Education Testing Service (NETS) through concluding that that the purpose of standardisation could be served if entrance tests were given by the institutions that select their students from a pool of applicants who present scores given by several Boards. Therefore, establishment of NETS was not recommended for selection of students for higher education as it would replicate the existing model of examination.
The real challenges to the empowerment and autonomy of the Pakistani universities have been raised by the concerned stakeholders i.e vice chancellors and Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association, an elected body of university faculty across the country which includes disrespecting university acts/statutory organs and undue external pressure and interference in internal matters of the universities even by public entities.
During the last few years, procedures introduced by HEC and provincial governments have become very clumsy, over-bureaucratic and over-intrusive into university affairs undermining the autonomy of the universities. The HEC Ordinance 2002 clearly lays down what HEC may or may not do. Universities must remain autonomous, governed by their own statutory bodies. This sanctity is being violated by HEC and provincial governments causing much criticism, annoyance and resistance among higher education fraternity. HEC and provincial governments need to revisit their mandate through confining their roles as facilitator and supporter to make our higher education institutions more productive and effective in order to get the desired results.
It is the collective responsibility of all tiers of the government and concerned institutions to respect and ensure autonomy of universities, which has been guaranteed through respective Acts of parliament/provincial assemblies.
At the same time, the university leadership should also realise their role in the promotion of higher education in country through patronising culture of merit and transparency, addressing the problems of faculty and students, effective university community linkages and encouraging research to address socio-economic problems being faced by Pakistani society. There is also dire need to strengthen the role of university syndicates, senates and board of governors where matters could be deliberated and decided through collective wisdom. The effective participation of elected representatives of faculty and students should also be ensured in these decision-making bodies. An honest and strong university leadership could effectively defend the university against undue external pressure and interference.
HEC also needs to declare top ranked Pakistani universities as flagship institutions through provision of more funds for faculty development, improving existing facilities and promotion of research culture. In addition, following the best practices and continuous efforts across Asia aimed at building world-class universities, can be greatly helpful for improving the ranking of Pakistani universities. For instance, China has undertaken Project 985 that aims to transform China’s most elite universities i.e Peking University and Tsinghua University into “super-elite” world-class institutions. In Japan, the country’s Global 30 scheme features a competitive funding allocation method devised to transform a few major Japanese universities into world-class institutions. South Korea has initiated Brain Korea 21 program with the goal of developing home-grown academic talent. Taiwan has launched the Five-Year, NT$5 billion excellence initiative to promote academic excellence in the universities. India has also recently undertaken such initiatives on the same lines.
The vision of newly appointed chairperson HEC for empowering Pakistani universities, needs to be supported by all the stakeholders and it is hoped that practical steps in this regard would bring excellence in higher education sector of Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.