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Why the HEC is a national asset

HEC Pakistan May 2008: One of the issues of great national importance, frequently discussed in recent weeks in the media and on TV, emanates from a recent statement made by the honourable Minister of Education Mr Ahsan Iqbal, expressing his view to change the status of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) back to it's precursor organisation, the University Grants Commission (UGC).
While many positive comments have been made in support of the HEC, there were a few that spewed negative criticism of the latter. In this article, I venture to make some comments based on my own long observations of over 50 years on the subject, in my capacity both as former professor at the University of Karachi and later as senior official at UNESCO, headquarters, Paris.

Education in general and higher education in particular is increasingly recognised as a wealth (human capital) producing industry. This is based on the idea that all economies are essentially knowledge-based, thus attaching considerable importance to its role in the context of national development.

Pakistan's educational system is cited in several international forums as a major impediment to achieving its potential.

The situation was akin to a chaos in the brickyard of education, where the bricklayers and the brick-makers (the teachers and scientists) lacked the required understanding to construct an edifice capable of providing satisfactory services to its user's community at the national level. Poor quality of teaching and research in all disciplines of sciences and education in the vast majority of our universities remained abound.

Consequently, over the years, this situation, often riddled with flaws, led to the isolation of many of our universities and higher education centres, away from the socio-economic development scenario at the national level.

The establishment of UGC during the intervening period, since independence, as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education, was far limited in its funding to strengthen higher education teaching and research. It was designed, among other things, to provide support to the emergent needs of the universities focusing attention on such matters as quality control, maintaining high standards in teaching, examination and higher education.

The records of UGC in all its dealings were reported to have fallen short of expectation. Higher education and research failed to receive appropriate grants to meet their emergent requirement, accounting for much of the decline in the quality of education in the universities. This coincided with the poor economic situation the country was facing during the late '80s and '90s.

Notwithstanding the general lack of governmental support, Pakistan's higher educational needs expanded rapidly during the past decades, due partly to participation of many private enterprises. This is reflected today in no less than 100 universities and institutions of higher learning, both public and private, which in addition to traditional disciplines; cover a wide range of specialisations such as agriculture, medicine, engineering, information technology (IT), science and technology and business management.

These and others in the pipeline, will depend heavily for their effective role on an organisation which could help uplift their individual capacities for high quality education and research, promote the much needed development of educational and scientific culture, provide targeted support to their individual needs through a well-coordinated programme.

The creation of the higher education commission in 2002 was a technocratic vision of the previous government at a time when the country was passing through development of various sectors of its economies. In its design it is highly innovative, ambitious directed to modernise the entire higher educational system in the country to respond to the country's future needs.

It is structured to effectively coordinate its various functions through a board consisting of 18 members, and several committees to monitor programme implementation.

Some of the important features related to proper functioning of universities, besides other things include the upgrading of existing teaching and research capacities, effective coordination of research activities at individual and institutional levels, networking that will allow exchange of views on matters of common interest (which will speed up communication amongst stakeholders) and promoting liaison between researching centres and industries, support for conferencing, symposia and workshop.

None of these and many other programmes, not reported here, were ever conceived under the UGC, and if they did, they tended to remain mostly limited in scope.

Since its establishment, HEC has launched a number of projects including award of 2,500 fellowships to young promising scientists for PhD-level studies in foreign universities, establishment of digital library providing access to about 23,000 international journals and 35,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers.

HEC is also embarking on a series of reforms, such as improving conditions of universities, quality of research publications, curbing such evils as plagiarism and similar other weaknesses noticed at the institution level.

Finally, judging from the historical perspectives, the HEC is forward looking and, in my view, it is the pressing need of our time. It is actually the beginning of a rehabilitation programme of high-level teaching and research in all disciplines across the board which tended to remain neglected for so long. According to one World Bank expert, "Reforming Pakistan's higher education system will have a tremendous pay off."

Higher education reforms will be in keeping with our new government's projected policy to provide high priority to economic development. Successful implementation of all its projected programmes will have a multiplying effect on other development activities. Any plans to reverse its present status will not only be disastrous but will have a far-reaching negative impact on the other national sectors. UGC can no longer act as a panacea.

The general criticism that HEC will overshadow the massive educational needs of our many schools and colleges that fall under the purview of the Ministry of Education, in my view, does not hold water.

There cannot be two opinions on the urgent need to strengthening this important part of the education sector.

On the contrary, any feed back from higher education reforms on a continuing basis to lower the educational system as proposed could only go a long way towards strengthening the system thus achieving the over all national objectives.

Similarly, criticism of its huge spending (0.4 per cent of GDP) can not be upheld. Higher education and scientific research in present times is very expensive undertaking. This is far less compared to India (0.7 per cent of its GDP) and Malaysia (2.7 per cent) and some other developing countries.One final remark. Given the poor history of implementation of our educational policies in the past, the HEC will be facing an uphill task and the many challenges associated with it. The success of its highly-structured programmes will largely depend not only on their efficient handling by the HEC, but also on the cooperation of all those institutions and their staff across the board, that are going to be the beneficiaries of its assistance.

By Dr S.M. Haq (Dawn)
The writer is a former professor of the University of Karachi and retired senior assistant secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, Paris.
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