What should HEC’s role be in strengthening higher education?

The role that HEC has played and continues to play has been more dogmatic towards its stakeholders rather than supportive and facilitative

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By M. FAZAL ELAHI
An enlightened response to the question as to what should be HEC’s role vis-à-vis strengthening the institutions of higher learning and their integral components, faculty and students would be; it should be “supportive and facilitative”. In other words, mentoring, nurturing and bolstering the higher education institutions should be the cornerstone of HEC’s policy to administer the higher education sector of the country.
This is precisely what HEC’s role should be, and this is exactly what the new Chairman of the HEC Professor Dr. Tariq Banuri, a scholar, academician, researcher and administrator of international eminence, articulated during his maiden address to the senior members of his team immediately after taking the reign of country’s premier higher education regulatory body in his hands.
The question however is, has HEC, since its creation 15 years ago, played the role expected of it? One would find it rather difficult to respond to this question in the affirmative. Regrettably, the role that HEC has played and continues to play has been more dogmatic towards its stakeholders rather than supportive and facilitative. Instead of making things easier or less difficult for its major stakeholders in the country, it has taken inordinately drastic measures that certainly wouldn’t promote but surely gag the higher education institutions and have an immensely damaging impact on higher education in the country.
In the realm of higher education, world over, the institutions of higher learning are the primary stakeholders. The other two equally significant stakeholders are the faculty and students. A supportive and facilitative higher education authority mandates itself to strengthen the principal stakeholders, the higher education institutions (HEIs); the secondary stakeholders, the faculty and students, automatically become the ultimately beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, the scenario in our part of the world has been totally different. It has conspicuously been devoid of such progressive philosophy. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has, particularly during the past five years, played an autocratic role in dealing with its principal stakeholders. The universities, both public and private, have been governed with a sense of utmost haughtiness. The Commission felt enormously contented in closing down a number of institutions, and completely blocking a large number of academic (bachelors, masters, M.Phil and PhD) programs of innumerable public and private universities. Some of these institutions, it would be pertinent to state, were placed in the highest (W 4) category of university rankings by HEC itself, and they have made phenomenal contribution towards the cause of higher education in the country.
Undeniably, the institutions which have become victim of the Commission’s autocratic stance may have been deficient in some areas of its academic endeavors. But this shouldn’t have led to total or partial closure of the academic programs of these institutions. Had the intent of the Higher Education Commission been positive and had it played a role of a mentor, rather than a tenacious regulatory body, the scenario certainly would have been very different. HEC would have taken these institutions along. It would have mentored, nurtured and bolstered them to maintain high standards in their endeavors to impart top quality education, and make them stand out conspicuously among the high ranking and venerable universities of the world.
It wouldn’t be inappropriate to quote an appalling instance, recently reported in Pakistan’s print media, that stridently speaks of serious mismanagement on the part of the Commission. According to the published report, about 671 PhD degree holders are jobless in the country since the last two to three years. They are running from pillar to post in search of jobs, but in vain. HEC and some notable foreign funding agencies invested huge sums in producing these high profile scholars. This was done with the specific intent of addressing the dire need of institutions of higher learning of the country for PhD faculty, to raise the standard of higher education and promote the culture of quality research in these institutions. When seen in the backdrop of this sad and abysmal situation, it seems that all efforts of the Commission to attain this vital goal have proven futile. Closing down of the academic programs of various institutions and inability to establish quality research centers and vocational training institutes unquestionably has had a key role to play in the joblessness of a huge number of PhDs.
All this shows that a crucially important factor that the Commission has, for some reasons, completely failed to appreciate vis-à-vis its principal stakeholders is that institutions are not built in days. It takes decades and a lot of pain and hard work to build institutions, but just some reckless notion or desire to obliterate them.
In view of the foregoing facts, it can be candidly said that in the process of asserting its power and authority, vested in it as the country’s highest regulatory body in the field of higher education, HEC has endeavored more to make itself stronger rather than its stakeholders.
Undoubtedly, the situation should have been the other way round; HEC should have focused more on strengthening the institutions and the other stakeholders in higher education rather than itself. Had it done so, the impact certainly would have been far greater and not only HEC but the entire nation could have had the opportunity to take genuine pride in its achievements in the field of higher education.
With a new leader at the helm in the HEC, one sincerely hopes things would change for good. Professor Dr. Tariq Banuri, the incumbent Chairman of the Higher Education Commission is a highly experienced, educated and enlightened academician, researcher, scholar and administrator. His profound exposure to the academic world, both within the country and abroad, must enable him to take judicious decisions vis-à-vis the higher education sector of the country. It is expected, and rightly so, that he would mandate HEC to play a guiding and facilitative role in dealing with all the stakeholders of higher education in the country. HEC should conclusively rise above prejudices; mentor and facilitate, and not jeopardize the efforts of the institutions which have enormously contributed and are contributing towards the cause of higher education in Pakistan.
M. Fazal Elahi is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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