Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Devolving the HEC – Landmark Decision of Pakistan’s Government

Category: Mind Change

Quite some level of effort has been put in projecting a debatable impression of Pakistan’s achievements in higher education, i.e. studies at the post-graduate level and above. Now when the federal government has announced the devolution of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), a number of media sources are being used to give the impression that a large number of people related to education are ill at ease with the commission’s impending devolution, and that the government should withdraw its decision.

Critics of the government’s decision to devolve the HEC to the provincial governments, in accord with the clauses of the 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, argue that devolution of a central body as the HEC will negatively impact the status of higher education in Pakistan. But none of them has any solid reason to prove that the status of higher education in Pakistan stands anywhere close to satisfactory. In fact, higher education in our country has become a mockery of education. So who else but the HEC can we blame for this poor condition of learning in institutions of “higher” education?

Over the 8 years that the HEC led the affairs relating higher education, billions and billions of the poor country’s funds have been spent on research projects. Has anyone, except Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy of the Quaid-e-Azam University and a select few, bothered to question the practical significance of these theoretical ventures? We have never asked how much has our economy benefitted from 8 years of spending money lavishly on producing PhDs and MPhils and how much has the country benefitted from these degree-holders, few of whom have international publications in journals of repute and above that, very few whose publications have benefitted the country’s economic, social, or even academic situation. The HEC appears a complete failure in providing pragmatic validity for its higher education projects.

Lately, a small number of students are out in protest in Islamabad against the devolution of the HEC. Whether they are protesting on their own or are being pushed by some hidden hands is a question worth investigating. However, the commission’s devolution is certainly a blow to these HEC-fed scholarship-drive students who fail to make it to the industry after grabbing their Master degrees and are thus welcomed into MPhil and PhD programs funded by the HEC, where the student gets a monthly stipend for doing “research” and the academician supervising him/her (an Assistant Professor or Professor) also gets monetary benefits each month beside getting additional benefits for every publication that his/her student makes. And what does it take to make a publication? Just some rehashing of older research papers and good relations with the people in charge of publications. Thus all stakeholders fill their pockets with easy money that comes from the hard-boiled fate of the nation’s poor population.

Over the years, there have been numerous reports of plagiarism and substandard, even bogus research produced by academicians using government’s money funded through the HEC. Almost always, there has been inaction on behalf of the commission. Thanks to lack of accountability, the irregularities have been growing wider and wider in the higher education section so that today, there are institutions where MPhil and PhD students have spent over 6 years, pursuing their degrees, violating the rules of 2 and 3 years of duration for obtaining the MPhil and PhD degrees respectively. Neither are the enrollments of these students cancelled nor are they awarded degrees. The HEC has paid no heed to these cases. Worse even is the fact that many post-graduate courses are taught by faculty members that are not even qualified for teaching those courses. Thus, they perpetuate the rote system of learning in higher education institutions. No accountability again, and hence no hope for improvement. Since the devolution of the commission would potentially mean an end to this laissez-faire enjoyment of government funds, both the faculty and students receiving the funds are disturbed over an impending end to the easy-coming currency that goes straight into their pockets.

By devolving the HEC, the government has taken a remarkable step in the right direction of improving things by ending the monopoly of a central body and saving billions for the sake of a nation that does not need PhDs but food and medicine for the dregs of its society. This certainly is a blow to those who have been thriving at the expense of the nation’s welfare. But it is the nation, the populace of over 17 hundred million people, that matters, not a group of a few hundred or a thousand who have been using education as a private business for churning money systematically without returning anything good to the nation. With congratulations to the government for this landmark achievement (better late than never), it can be hoped that now the government will also tend to critically analyze the status of those private institutions where education has been reduced to mockery and hopefully the government will take strict measures to free education out of the clutches of profiteers disguised as academicians.