Aug 26 - Sep 01, 2002


In pursuance of the recommendations of the "Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan" the government has constituted the Higher Education Commission with wide financial power and autonomy. It will replace the present University Grants Commission and would work in proactive and supportive fashion with the objective to help promote higher education and research, said Minister for Science and Technology Dr. Attaur Rehman on Friday, last week.

The Task Force was notified in April 2001. The force was a private public partnership comprising 17 leaders of higher education and co-chaired by Syed Babar Ali (Pro-Chancellor of Lahore University of Management and Sciences) and Dr. Shamsh Kassim Lakha (President of Aga Khan University Karachi). The President Gen. Pervez Musharraf who received a briefing by the Task Force on its findings on April 11, 2002, approved the recommendations by the force.

The UGC, which was established by in 1974, was found by Force as an ineffective organisation, which had failed to meet the expected goals. The report observed, "The University Grants Commission (UGC) was established in 1974 by an act of Parliament for maintaining standards of education and uniform policy aimed at bringing about national unity and cohesion. Assessment of financial needs of universities, disbursement of grants, and building institutional capacity are also amongst its functions. With no control on funding the UGC nevertheless serves as a transmitter of the universities' annual budgetary requests to the Ministry of Education and distribution of Federal Government's grants to the universities (generally less than requested and not always delivered on time). This has contributed to erosion of its credibility with universities."

Addressing a press conference here with a focus on HEC Ordinance recently approved by the Federal Cabinet, the S&T Minister said, "as per the national development priorities the new body is meant to lay down policies and guiding principles. Basically, the HEC would guide, support and facilitate the universities and would smoothen the functions of degree awarding institutes of the country rather than becoming a hindrance and intrusion in the functioning".

The Minister explained that the ordinance was the result of successful meetings by the new Ministry of Science and Technology with the federal and provincial education ministries, UGC, Vice Chancellors, governors, steering committee on higher education and renowned educationists.

Dr. Atta said the commission would be an independent statutory body and its head would enjoy the powers of a Federal Minister. It would comprise 16 members plus an executive director. The members would include secretary ministry of education, Secretary Ministry of Science and Technology, Executive Director or Secretary to the Commission, four educationists, one from each province nominated by the respective provincial governors while the remaining seven members would include teachers, researchers and administrators. One of the seven miscellaneous members will be a female.

Amongst the VCs, one would be from the private sector besides two other members as well. The secretariat would be functioning as the executive body of the Commission meant to implement orders, decisions, directives and policy.

Dr. Atta said, it would advise federal and provincial governments on proposals for granting charter, needs of the institutions, approval and provision of funds on performance and need basis.

The HEC would also carry out rating of the educational institutions, set up of national testing bodies besides laying down minimum criteria, setting qualifications for appointment and promotion of faculty, forming committees in various disciplines for advice on various issues.

"The HEC is also assigned to focus on supporting programmes for economic development, performance and need-based funding after peer review by national/ international experts, evaluation of quality of education and ensuring minimum internationally compatible standards", the S&T minister explained. Earlier the Minister for Finance, Shaukat Aziz disclosed that education sector reforms would cost over Rs.55 billion over a 5 years period as against an average expenditure of Rs. 5 billion annually from federal government on education sector. The government is however, determined to arrange the required funding, he added.

The setting up of Higher Education Commission by the cabinet to guide, support and facilitate the universities is believed to bring about a positive and effective change in the environment of higher learning institutions, besides enabling them to be more responsive to the demands of the country. The failure of the University Grants Commission in delivering the goods has been felt for long. The lack of alignment between the university education and the needs of developing countries prompted the government to look for alternative arrangement, which could help achieve the desired results with the scarce resources. The importance of all the tasks assigned to the HEO is self-evident. However, one consistent flaw in most official reform efforts is the absence of an objective evaluation of the causes of the problem intended to be fixed.

In the present case, for example an education policy already exists, the curriculum is also laid out and on top of it all sits an overgrown University Grants Commission and, of course, the Education Ministry. Yet, the public (as well as most private sector) education has become such a disaster that most Master's degree holders are barely literate in the fields of their so-called specialisation. The Federal Public Service in its annual report last year lamented that the academic standard were deteriorating so badly that it was becomingly difficult for the commission to find suitable candidates for the various posts.

HEC will require a lot of money to put all its new plans into practice. Some of the immediate financial needs can be taken care of from the grant that the US had recently made specifically for the purpose of promoting education in this country. But it has to be an ongoing endeavour. We have to look at our own resources to increase the budgetary allocations to this vital sector. Given the sense of priorities of our successive governments, it is useless to expect that those who take over power in the days to come will earmark sufficient resources to education, though no one can dispute the fact that investing in education means investing in the future progress and development of the country.

The report of the Task Force has rightly pointed the deplorable fall in the quality and standard of education in the institutions of higher learning in the public sector and identified some of its causes as well. Surprisingly however, it has not touched upon one of the most important problem of the education sector the rising cost of education and its commercialision by the private sector institutions. The cost of education in any standard institute of higher learning has gone almost beyond the reach of lower middle and even the middle class families living in their honest income. These are the segment of the society from where the talent normally emerge. This precious potential for future national requirement is being wasted by our sheer neglect. The government institutions lack the proper facilities whereby our talented youth can be polished and prepared. On the other hand the expenses in the quality education centres in the private sector (most of them are substandard which are fleecing the ignorant students and their parents) are prohibitive for this class of students.

The federal education Minister Zubeda Jalal, however, believes that the partnership of private sector was necessary to expand the educational facilities. The government efforts alone, cannot meet the nation's demand in this field. She however, emphasises the need of developing of code of ethics for the educational institutions in private sector, a strict charter of requirements before licensing any one to enter in this field and close surveillance and monitoring of their operations by government agencies.

Explaining of the salient features of the new education policy recently finalized by her ministry, she said a key element of the education sector reforms agenda is the development of partnerships between the private and the public sectors and with the NGOs.

Each sub-sector includes a strategic role for the private sector. The government has also proposed a package of incentives for the private sectors presence. But at the same time we will supervise their operation through close monitoring. Grant of charter to private universities would be provisional on scholarship to meritorious needy students, she added.

This condition alone does not hold any promise if the cost of education in these institutes of standard will be brought down to an affordable level for the students belonging to lower and middle class of our society or whose parents are used to living within their honest means. Few scholarships by these universities cannot meet the problem.

The only way out, under the circumstances seems to be liberal grant of interest free education loans to the needy students which may be paid back by them in easy installments when they are employed after completing their education. The loan should be available to only those needy students, who fully qualify the admission test by the government approved educational institutions in the private sector and is so recommended by them. The amount of loan should be based on the need of the student and if necessary, it should be adequate enough to cover, besides tutions fee and etc. the living expenses in the hostel.

This is a practice which is being followed since decades in the civilized world and has contributed tremendously to expand the higher education. Malaysian example is worth following. Students apply for admission to universities and other institutions. They are selected to pursue the courses of their choice. On the basis of this selection they apply to government treasury for education loan. The loan for the whole duration is approved in a very short period so that the students' time is not wasted and they join the courses on time.

The loan amount is not given to the student but is directly deposited in the institution's account every month. The student in turn enters into a contract or signs a bond that he will pay back the amount in so many years after completing the education. There is also a provision for insurance in case the student meets with an accident. The insurance money is included in the approved loan. If a student stops attending a course the remittance of the fees is stopped and the institutions cancels his admission.