Universities and academics have strongly criticised the cabinet’s approval last week of an amendment in the law governing Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) that makes the prime minister the controlling authority, giving him the power to dismiss the chairperson of the higher education regulatory body at any time.
It is one of a number of changes termed as ‘perilous’ for the country’s higher education system.
Through the amendment, the powers of the HEC chairperson will be reduced, downgrading his status from being equal to a federal minister at present, to just the head of the organisation.
It would also be a step towards undermining provincial autonomy if the HEC has the power to regulate universities in the provinces.
Academics and other regional political parties believe the amendment, bringing the HEC under the federal government’s direct control, will reduce the role of provincial governments and provincial higher education departments in directing regional universities on research and development in accordance with regional needs.
The Association of Private Sector Universities of Pakistan (APSUP) on 7 July in a letter to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif urged him to withdraw the 3 July amendment citing potential threats to institutional autonomy.
The letter, written by the association’s chairman Chaudhary Abdul Rehman on behalf of all private sector universities in the country, stated: “The proposed amendments could have far-reaching consequences for the quality and growth of higher education in Pakistan.”
He maintained it also had the potential to undermine HEC autonomy and would open the way for possible ‘external’ control and influence – a reference to fears that with the prime minister as the supreme authority, ministers and politicians of the ruling political party will have direct influence over the HEC.
“This shift may limit the autonomy of universities and hamper their ability to cater to regional needs and aspirations effectively,” Rehman wrote.
“There is a need to safeguard the autonomy and independence of universities for the advancement of academic excellence, research, and innovation in Pakistan.”
However, the government maintains the 2023 amendments to the HEC Ordinance of 2002 are ‘in good faith’ and intended to ‘empower’ the HEC.
“The government first led the process of creating a provincial higher education commission after the passage of 18th constitutional amendment that devolved the subject of education to the provinces in April 2010, and encouraged provincialisation of the higher education sector.
“But now this amendment making the federal HEC the sole standard-setting body would undermine provincial (higher education) autonomy,” Muhammad Ashraf, rector of the University of Lahore told University World News.
“How will universities in the provinces cater to regional needs when the standard would be set by the central authority?” Ashraf added.