Why the HEC is a national asset
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Post your Feedback about information available on this page.