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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 citizens.

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 governments.

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 countries.

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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