HEC and the Question of Higher Education

Debates surrounding role, policy significance and disputatious existence of Higher Education Commission (HEC) ignited when the Federal Government removed Dr. Tariq Banuri as Chairman of the HEC early this year. The debates unearthed related issues such as administrative bottlenecks, questionable quality of Higher Education in Pakistan, over-regulation of country’s educational landscape by vested groups, and redundancy of HEC after passage of 18th Amendment. These debates culminated in the need for questioning a pertinent point: Do we need HEC in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, we embed our higher education policies in the colonial and Orientalist discourses. These assert that education is a colonial remnant with a focus on quantity over quality. We assume once we have the critical mass of educated people, our society will benefit from the trickle-down effect. This drives our focus on quantity. Once we achieve quantity, quality will organically follow, with both quality and quantity being in complete harmony with each other. The post-independence educational discourse created two classes namely administrators (civil bureaucrats) and labor pool that could follow the former. Both were synchronized with each other to meet demands of world order based on politico-economic structure of capitalism.

The intent of Higher Education has never been to produce a critical mind that has the potential to comprehend, dissect, synthesize, solve problems, and critically analyze. Unfortunately, HEC has not played a role in shaping up a mass with critical mind. Lack of concerted efforts at both federal and provincial levels, sludge created by the attestation policies, unattainability in uniformity of curricula, associate degree programs, frameworks for redesigning PhD programs, and establishment of universities in every nook and corner of the country are some of the widespread criticisms against HEC.

In the wake of highly charged debates on role of HEC in impacting the state of higher education in Pakistan and more so towards the country’s discursive landscape, PIDE has arranged a series of ‘HEC Travails’ webinars. In its first session, Professor Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, Nuclear Physicist and Activist, critiqued HEC for framing quantitative conditionality for hiring and promotions, which has led Higher Education towards ‘knowledge deficit’. The academic staff hired in universities may have many publications to their credit but lack knowledge in explaining what their publications are about.

Dr. Arshad Ahmad, VC LUMS, emphasized on redesigning HEC framework and the fact that merely working as an intermediary for allocating public funds from governments to educational institutes will not serve the larger cause of actualizing Higher Education in Pakistan. Professor Iqrar Ahmad Khan, Ex-VC, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, typified issues defined along the axis of funding, poor undergraduate program, lack of periodic reviews, paucity of quality faculty members, lack of autonomous status, and contingence of educational policies on the longevity of ruling governments.

The discussion led to highlighting the fact that HEC performs a great many functions, perhaps too many. Allocation of funds, quality assurance, degree attestation, curriculum development, M & E, scholarships, NoCs, plagiarism, and R & D through research grants. All of this is done through tightly tailored centralized system without adopting a sectoral and coalition approach. Its policies are ‘one-size-fits-all’ without catering to heterogeneities of education quality, student intake, pedagogical techniques, spatial variances, and nature and number of degreed offered.

The promotional criteria are also stringent and conditioned on quantity than quality of publications in academic journals. There is over-reliance on securing PhDs as a pre-requisite for laddering up higher grades. Focus has shifted from undergraduate programs. The policy conditions related to attestation, procurements, quality assurance, and NoCs reflect HEC’s intent to micromanage universities into uniformity. Scholarships to fund foreign PhDs have not improved quality of faculty. Brick and mortar approach has built more universities and not created avenues of knowledge sharing and its cross-fertilization. The bureaucratization of educational institutions has shrunk possibilities of seeking knowledge through questions, deconstruction and critical analysis.

But the issue is at both ends, students and faculty. We should view the regulatory role of HEC considering what theory and practice about regulation offers. The regulatory role also compromises the autonomy of universities and degree awarding institutions. What further regulatory role HEC can perform is a question of critical relevance.