On the basis of recommendations by six members search committee, reputed educationist Dr Tariq Banuri has been appointed as chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Dr Banuri, an economist with significant national and international distinctions, has been selected as the 4th permanent chief of the HEC. He was also a member of the original steering committee that prepared the blueprint for the reform of higher education in the country. Academic & civil society circles, vice chancellors and Chairperson of Punjab HEC have hailed the transparent and merit-based appointment of Dr Banuri.
In his initial media talk, the new HEC Chairman vowed to work for the improvement of quality standards in the higher education. Expressing his views about bringing improvement in the higher education sector, he said that students and faculty would be the major focus under his stewardship. Higher Education Commission –established in 2002– is one of the significant institutions of the country. It performs important functions in higher education sector pertaining to accreditation of new and existing universities, degree awarding institutions, funding (both development and recurring), planning and development, recognition and equivalency of degrees, setting policy guidelines such as in the appointment and promotion of faculty, research, quality assurance, faculty development programs and in improving the standard of university education in country.
The stakeholders have also expected that new HEC chief would address the key challenges and problems being faced by higher education sector and especially ascended during last few years.
The recent annual report released by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan described the state of higher education in Pakistan in one sentence “The focus has not been on the promotion of higher education, but on legal battles and survival issues.” The report, like that of the previous year, stated that higher education remained neglected and according to Quacquarelli Symonds-(QS) World Universities Rankings for the year 2017 saw only one of our 180 plus universities included in the top 500 universities. In the World University Ranking for 2017, issued by Times Higher Education, one Pakistani university made it to the top 500, whereas only two universities were included in the top 800.
The first and foremost challenge is to follow transparent and merit-based mechanisms for the appointment in higher education sector following the universal principle of “right man at the right job.”
When HEC was established in 2002, it was easy to manage thirty plus university, but now in Pakistan, the number of recognised universities has been increased to 188 with more than 110 additional countrywide campuses. Out of them, only 19% of universities are federally charted universities while provincial governments chart the majority of the universities, 81% (152 out of 188). Like the other federations, the provincial governments are governing the universities established by provincial authorities.
The multiple challenges that Pakistani higher education sector is facing can be effectively dealt through meaningful and collaborative continuous engagement among federal and provincial higher education bodies, i.e. provincial HECs especially in the light of 18th Constitutional Amendment and the decision of 35th meeting of Council of Common Interests (CCI).
Special attention is required for improving quality of teaching and research in higher education, the inclusion of Pakistani universities among top-ranked international and regional universities, playing a facilitative and supportive role to universities through catering their growing needs. It is only possible through harmony and respecting one another’s constitutional and legal role/mandate.
The most critical challenge for the new HEC head is bringing about positive reforms within HEC through ensuring regular meetings of HEC s’ governing board, the key body responsible for the formulation of policies and responsible for the improvement of higher education in the country. It is unfortunate that the body remained dysfunctional during last few years and even the critical policy decisions were made without its prior approval. Other organisational issues which require immediate attention are ensuring transparency and merit in key decisions, bringing an end to adhocism within HEC through discouraging the culture of deputation & extension and ensuring publication of HEC annual reports.
The other significant challenges in the higher education sector which require the immediate attention of new HEC chief include, restoring HEC‘s role as a supportive and facilitative body through respecting the autonomy of universities in the light of recommendations of Steering Committee on Higher Education 2002. Dr Tariq Banuri himself played a vital role in preparing these recommendations along with other reputed academicians. The other important recommendations of the steering committee also included guaranteed academic freedom, enhancing academic quality, faculty empowerment through greater participation in decision-making, de-politicisation of campuses and involvement of civil society and the corporate sector.
It is quite misfortunate that hundreds of jobless PhD holders could be seen protesting sometimes outside the HEC and press club. It is hoped that new HEC chief would also play his role in their placements.
Being first HEC chairman with social sciences background, it is expected that he would play his vital role for revival of social sciences in Pakistan through meaningful engagement with other organisations working for strengthening social sciences i.e. Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Working Group on Higher Education Reforms and Council of Social Sciences.
He would also play a proactive role in effective implementation of the decision by Senate of Pakistan‘s Functional Committee decision regarding amendments in HEC Act in the light of 18th Constitutional Amendment, extending the retirement age of university faculty from 60 to 65 years and restoring 75% tax rebate for university teachers and researchers.
As per the United Kingdom higher education model which is ranked as the 2nd most robust higher education system, there is need to separate the functions of funding, quality assurance and university ranking in Pakistan.
It is also hoped that new HEC chief would undertake some concrete steps to address structural problems in higher education through wider consultation and involvement of concerned stakeholders.
The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.