We see people spouting opinions and more like pointing accusations towards the 18th amendment of weakening the federation, especially in the present scenario of financial “doom and gloom” where provinces have ample resources at hand while Islamabad is left in dire straits.
Though the body politic needs to face up to this trend towards fiercely aggressive language wielded by some quarters against this historic amendment, the fact is that the devolution process itself has had a mixed record at best. While many issues are pending with the Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination (IPC) and the Council of Common Interests (CCI), determining a new constitutional role for the Higher Education Commission (HEC) remains a test case in this regard.
The HEC was founded under the auspices of Musharraf regime and is still functioning in view of the provisions of the original HEC Ordinance 2002. As per ruling of the Supreme Court in 2011, the 18th amendment would have no effect on the functioning of the HEC and in case of any conflict, the ordinance shall prevail. This effectively means that any notification of devolution could not supersede the ordinance of the commission. Due to this judgment, the CCI has expressed reservations from time to time in giving a green signal to provincial higher education commissions.
A deep dive into the 18th amendment’s text reveals that the federal government has the mandate to oversee matters pertaining to higher degrees from abroad such as issuance of equivalence and managing foreign scholarships by virtue of entry No 16 in the Federal Legislative List (FLL) Part-I, but issues related to education planning and standard setting for higher education, research, scientific and technical institutions fall within the purview of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) vide entries Nos 7, 11 and 12 of FLL Part-II.
There is another legal obstacle to the devolution of higher education subject. If a university has multiple campuses in different provinces like Comsats University, they can’t be regulated by provinces. The federal legislature can exercise extra-territorial authority as per the Constitution but no such extra-territorial authority has been conferred to provincial legislatures. This means a large number of universities will still be regulated by Islamabad even if the powers were devolved to provinces.
Many parliamentarians are of the view that the authority of standard setting for higher education should be exclusively vested in the Federal HEC whereas provincial HECs should be empowered to perform monitoring and evaluation functions as this will slice up some of the fiscal burden on the federal government. However this opinion also clashes with the spirit of 18th amendment.
These issues are very grave and need to be addressed urgently. The HEC can’t continue running under the 2002 ordinance issued by a dictator and its role need to be clarified in order to refute narratives such as ‘provinces versus centre.’ Accountability of the HEC is also a big question mark as the HEC has wasted billions on half-baked megaprojects such as establishment of new universities that were later scrapped. It is also debatable if the HEC has the mandate to claim exorbitant fees for attestation of mere photocopies and for issuance of equivalence certificates. However, Islamabad is still in a state of denial even after eight years. HEC devolution is a complex puzzle but our parliament seems unaware of the extent of those problems. Unfortunately, problems that are studiously ignored only grow worse with time.
If there is a useful lesson from years of fretting over devolution of the HEC, it is that such implementation needs better preparation and more clarity about intentions — not just at the top end of the scale. The new HEC chairman said, “If we have confidence that provinces can implement standards adequately, we can delegate powers to them in spirit of the 18th amendment. So the way forward to overhaul our higher education system is through a meaningful dialogue among all stakeholders and through capacity building of provincial HECs. Transparency and autonomy will be important otherwise the higher education reform agenda may get overwhelmed by a familiar internecine patronage politics.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2018.