July 9 - 15, 20

The incumbent government of Pakistan attained a feat when it succeeded in making 18th Amendment the part of the Constitution transferring a number of ministries including education to the provinces. Two year back, it devolved the higher education commission (HEC), the regulatory body tasked to upgrade quality of higher education and foster research and development culture in universities in the country. However, the government was stopped to devolve the commission by the Supreme Court, as people were not in favour of HEC run from the provincial secretariats. What has turned out at last is an important institution jettisoned in dire straits supported neither by the federal government nor its adoptive parents-in-law.

For last two years, the biggest issue facing the HEC has been unavailability of whatever meagre funds allocated to it in the budgets. The liquidity problem started to appear before that, however. Since the regulatory body is the source of money for the country's 72 state-run universities, besides the platform to maintain the standards of higher education in general in the country, its financial hardships mean deterioration of education. That what actually has happened and is happening.

What to say of public sector universities, managing affairs have become quite difficult even for the HEC that is unable to meet its administrative expenses. Students, university's faculties, and research scholars are staging protests against the non-release of funds. Analysts sought the legal justification of moving the commission, being an autonomous body under HEC Ordinance 2002, under the control of newly established federal ministry for professional and technical training. It was also said that certain amendments had been introduced into the said Ordinance to conform it to the 18th amendment.

To ensure its performing core function of maintaining the standards of higher education, the centre allocated Rs15.8 billion as research funds for higher education sector in the budget 2012-13. The allocation is insignificant when compared with Rs22.5 billion earmarked in 2009. In fact, the five-year since the promulgation of HEC Ordinance was a golden period in the higher education sector.

According to an estimate, universities made a history by publishing approximately 4,500 papers per year in international journals until 2008. Earlier, the number was just 600 per year. During 2002-2008, there was 6,000 per cent increase in budget of science and technology and 2400 per cent upswing in budget of higher education, said a document published by the Comstech. Over 4,000 students were awarded scholarships under foreign scholarship programmes in this period, it noted.

Last year, the allocation came down to just Rs14 billion. Of that, a substantial portion is yet to be released. According to the federation of all Pakistan universities academic staff associations (FAPUASA), the federal government had to release withheld money of about six billion rupees for research and development and approximately six billion rupees for recurring expenditures to the HEC.

Media reports said that Prime Minster Raja Pervez Ashraf had ordered the finance ministry last month to release the delayed funds immediately.

A number of people including students and academicians nationwide were not happy over the decision of HEC devolution saying it would drag the commission, in other words, higher education back to a decade. The views that it was a retribution awarded to the commission for its active role in debunking fake degree holding members of parliamentarians were floating widely in the media. Many of the parliamentarians of the mainstream political parties were found of contesting elections on fake degrees or degrees from bogus institutes. PML-N, PPPP, and PML-Q had abetted these persons by issuing them election tickets.

Instead of devolving the entire power and responsibility of higher education to the provinces, analysts contended, that federal government should keep its role intact by setting up provincial subcommittees that work together with the centre to manage affairs of higher education in the country.

"All the good work done during Musharraf's tenure has been undone by the great civilian government. Obviously, educated masses are highly unacceptable for their plans," commented a reader on an article about HEC affairs following 18th Amendment.

Perhaps, it was not devolution that angered universities but fund shortages. If today provinces pledge due allocation to higher education in their respective territories, things would be normalized. Will it not improve quality of education when provinces are in the front seat to set the priorities and redirect resources accordingly? Federal government used to look into the affairs of a number of universities in the country and might compromise on funds allocated for one to favour other under the political influence.

There are academicians who advocate devolution of the HEC, arguing centralization leads to favouritism and cronyism, which are imbedded governance evils in Pakistan. In past, HEC's senior officials have been alleged of sending their relatives on unmerited foreign study tours. Though one cannot say for sure whether a provincial administration will do away with the merit's infringement at once in higher education, yet it is the provincial rights to deal with the system on its own. Decentralization is essential to remove to the higher education inequalities in the country, said academicians.

Higher education sector has made some progress in the Musharaf's tenure. It has still to go a long way to bring local institutes on a par with those of international repute and enhance competitiveness of graduates in the world.

Enrolment to higher education sector in Pakistan is very low at four per cent compared with India (11 per cent) and Malaysia (32 per cent), said a World Bank's report. Age group of 17 to 23 years is enrolled in higher education institutes in Pakistan. More than fifty per cent population under 19 can become a blessing for the country if they are trained in science and technology and other faculties to provide leadership and direction to the local resources. Funds scarcity and subsequent non-release of salaries is giving a way to corruption into the education sector, which should be taken very seriously.