Who discovered America? Almost all of us would come up with the correct answer that America was discovered by an Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus. What if you were asked who discovered the route and who, later, built a road to (economic and intellectual) progress and development of Pakistan. In a bid to hide their embarrassment, some might come up with “oh, does that road really exist in our country”, or try other evasive answers with an impish grin. However that road does exist, and it goes straight through our universities. Thus the names that immediately come to our minds are: Dr Ataur Rehman and Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, the former and the current chairmen of Higher Education Commission (HEC) which, in a manner of speaking, has come of age as it turns 15 on September 11th.

It was only recently or, to be more precise, at the turn of the century that the world began to realize that higher education is key to economic development. The focus – which had hitherto been on primary education – shifted to tertiary education as a critical component of human development. Feats like transformation of societies and even resuscitation of dead economies are possible if the policy-making is done by people who are skilled, trained and, above all, sincere.

Much of the progress in the West is attributed to their institutions after they were restructured and accorded due empowerment. They included political, social, intellectual and, more importantly, higher education institutions.

A boom in higher education was also witnessed in Pakistan, with a constitutional amendment in 2002 setting up the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to replace the Universities Grants Commission (UGC).

Tasked with the development of higher education system in the country with a focus on research and development, HEC has been playing an important role towards building a knowledge based economy in Pakistan.

Public and private degree-awarding institutions (DAIs) in the country, with a variety of teaching methodologies and programmes, inevitably paved way for the establishment of a federal regulatory authority.

There were only 16 higher education institutions, both public and private, established in the pre-HEC period (1947-2002) in the Punjab province. However, the post-HEC period (2002-2015) saw 39 more institutions in the province, a phenomenal 71 percent increase, bringing the total number of higher education institutions in the province till 2015 to 55.

By the end of fiscal year 2015-16, HEC had spent Rs34.554 billion on development and Rs96.059 billion as recurring expenditure on the institutions in the Punjab province.

Under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) for Punjab, HEC had 278 projects approved with a total cost of Rs56.135 billion, with accumulative releases of Rs33.688 billion till March 2016. The components of the approved projects included human resource development (14 per cent), civil work (47 per cent), equipment (28 per cent) and others (11 per cent). The commission, out of its 925 approved slots under its Faculty Development Initiative of Universities, has awarded scholarships to 545.

Those at the helm of the commission, former chairman Dr Ataur Rehman and the current chairman Dr Mukhtar Ahmad, put their heart and soul in advancing the cause of higher education in the country.

In just a decade and a half, there has been many-fold increase in research publications, PhD teachers as well as enrolment for MPhil and PhD in our universities.

Today, our universities can boast of much better infrastructure, easy access for researchers to digital libraries, regular training of teachers, collaboration with renowned international higher education institutions, and the culture of merit in disbursement of scholarships all thanks to HEC. The establishment of 50 universities and producing about 5000 PhDs in just a decade is no less than a Herculean task.

It does not end here the HEC has set up Quality Enhancement Cells in about 90 universities, earmarked special funds for educationally backward regions in all the provinces, successfully introduced as well as promoted industry-academia linkages, entrepreneurship, etc.

The apex higher education regulatory body, as part of its human resource development initiatives, has awarded more than 12,000 scholarships at national level – overseas, indigenous and Need-Based combined.

In Punjab’s higher education institutions, a mammoth infrastructure development through PSDP is an achievement to be reckoned with. The construction of about 850 building facilities which include academic and administrative blocks, libraries, student hostels, faculty residences, auditoriums, gymnasiums, cafeterias, amongst other structures, at a cost of well over Rs23 billion gave the higher education sector the much needed impetus.

That we have come this far in our journey of higher education from a state in close proximity when the whole system lay in a state of total disarray is absolutely a marvellous achievement. There was no dearth of ideas, though. The absence of people who could pitch themselves in with determination to steer the ship of higher education was what we suffered. It was a time when all the country’s institutions had their trust eroded and became a subject of public ire. The establishment of Higher Education Commission with the men like Dr Ataur Rehman and Dr Mukhtar Ahmed at the helm restored the nation’s pride and set landmarks for the rest of the world to follow. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say that HEC Chairman Dr Mukhtar Ahmed’s candid approach and sincere policies in advancing the cause of higher education in the country gave the much needed impetus to the process of national development and progress.

Thanks to his untiring efforts, we now have a growing network of universities which are not to be viewed as merely degree awarding institutes. They have enormous potential to contribute significantly to efforts aimed at boosting the social, moral and intellectual progress of the nation. Not only that. They can play a vital role in cultivating peace and promoting the importance of peaceful co-existence by helping the youth to rediscover and rebuild their identity. That’s why the whole nation is confidently looking up to their education institutions to come up with a solution to reverse the damage caused by extremism and intolerance.

One can say, and rightly so, that all the efforts and policy-making of the higher education regulatory body under Dr Mukhtar are focused on the most significant goal of preparing our youth, through training and character-building, into a workforce capable of taking up its role and act more responsibly in our march on the road to progress, peace and prosperity. Let me tell you that we are way down the track. The journey to progress has already started.