Not the UGC again, Mr Prime Minister!
April 14, 2008: A Nnumber of statements have appeared on national TV and in national newspapers
from the new education minister, Mr Ahsan Iqbal, that he wishes to take away the
autonomy of Higher Education Commission (HEC) and convert it back into the old
University Grants Commission (UGC), which worked under the administrative
control of our bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education. This would be a
disaster of monumental proportions that will undo all the good work that has
been done in Pakistan in this sector.
To put facts straight, the
ordinance under which the HEC operates was framed after years of deliberations
by national and international experts. It does NOT function under the president
of Pakistan, as was wrongly mentioned on television recently but operates
directly under the prime minister, who is the controlling authority. The prime
minister appoints the chairman as well as the other members of its board of
governors (the so-called 'commission').
The 16-member board includes the
secretary of the Ministry of Education in order to ensure close coordination
with the Education Ministry. It also includes the secretary of the Ministry of
Science & Technology, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, eminent
educationists, vice chancellors of some important universities and other eminent
The prime minister appoints all of them. It also has the
representatives of all four provincial education ministries to ensure close
coordination of the education ministries of the provincial
The HEC works under the supervision of this board and was
given the powers of a ministry (its chairman has the status of a federal
minister, and its executive director the status of a federal secretary) so that
it could function directly under the prime minister of Pakistan with minimum red
tape and the bureaucratic hold of an intervening ministry, which could delay
decisions and the implementation of projects of national significance. The
continued autonomous functioning of the HEC is essential to ensure that the
momentum generated in the last five years is not dissipated by expansionist
territorial interests of the Ministry of Education.
The last five years
have seen spectacular developments in the sector of higher education, which are
now rapidly transforming the status of our universities into genuine seats of
learning and research. These are reflected in the very large number of excellent
projects launched by the HEC to improve the quality of higher education, expand
access to a greater number of students and make education more relevant to
national needs. The number of reforms undertaken are awesome, to say the least.
Here are only a few illustrative examples:
Pakistan used to send a couple
of dozen scholars abroad on national and foreign scholarships for faculty
development before the HEC came into existence in October 2002. As a result, the
number of PhDs declined rapidly. The HEC recognised that teachers represent the
single most important factor affecting the quality of education and research in
universities, and took effective measures to uplift this sector. A huge
scholarship programme was initiated by the HEC after it came into existence and
about 1,000 students are sent for PhD level studies every year to top
universities abroad. Over 2,500 students have already been awarded PhD
scholarships and another 120 will be sent abroad this year. They are now only
starting to return, and it is this single programme which will help to improve
the quality of our universities.
In order to ensure that these scholars
return and can contribute to the development of the universities, HEC has
focused its efforts on creating an enabling environment in the universities,
involving approving excellent salaries and research facilities to the teaching
staff. The salaries of all teachers in universities have been significantly
increased by giving all a higher grade.
Under the new tenure track
system, Pakistan has become the only country in the world where the salary of a
professor can be several times that of a federal minister in the government.
Moreover, only a maximum of five per cent tax is payable by the teaching
community, making it even more attractive. The result is that our brightest
young are opting for careers in education and research as their first option
after leaving school.
Without the brightest of Pakistan going into
science, engineering, economics, etc. we cannot create a knowledge-based
economy. The liberal research grants available have made it much easier for
creativity to flourish, and there has been about a 400 per cent increase in
research publications from Pakistani universities in the last four years in
international journals. Effective steps taken by HEC to control plagiarism have
been nationally applauded in editorials in major national newspapers, and
several professors were fired from the University of Punjab for cheating on
account of pressure exerted by the HEC.
One of the most dramatic changes
that occurred has been the digital revolution brought about by HEC in the
universities. If you walked into the library of any university three years ago,
you would not have found even a few of the latest journals that are so essential
to keep up with the latest developments. Today every student in every public
sector university in Pakistan has online access to 23,000 different
international journals with back volumes.
Books are even more important
for students and foreign books are very expensive. Today every student has
online access to 45,000 international textbooks and research monographs for 220
reputable foreign publishers. Under a video lecturing programme initiated by the
HEC, 23 universities have already been provided video conferencing facilities
and the remaining would have these in four months. Lectures are being delivered
regularly using these facilities to students and the faculty in Pakistan by
professors in USA, Europe, Australia and Japan, face to face, in real time and
students then have discussion sessions with the professors in foreign
A "silent revolution" is how all this has been described by
foreign experts who have reviewed the programmes of the HEC. We must not go back
to the bad old days and take away the direct control that the prime minister
presently has on the HEC, take away its autonomy and convert it into the old UGC
with the Ministry of Education controlling it. The UGC was an abject failure. We
must learn from history and not repeat our mistakes to satisfy the interests of
a few bureaucrats.
By Rabia Garib (Dawn)
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