Pakistan’s higher education sector needs greater autonomy

The sacking of the Higher Education Commission’s chair provides an opportunity to rethink the organisation's entire rationale, says Tahir Shah

May 2, 2021
A person holding up handcuffs in the sunrise, symbolising autonomy
Source: iStock

After March’s unceremonious sacking of Higher Education Commission chair Tariq Banuri, Pakistan’s Ministry of Education has taken direct control of the body. But the commission’s failure is not down to one man. It is long-term, and its solution demands radical overhaul of the whole machinery of university oversight.

While Banuri’s swift removal via a presidential order may have been a classic case of scapegoating, the interregnum offers the opportunity for Pakistan to undertake that overhaul and move towards a more progressive and unified education system. Abolishing the HEC and creating a robust Department of Higher Education within the Ministry of Education merits serious consideration.

One of the aims of establishing the HEC in its modern form in 2002 was to facilitate the creation of autonomous, progressive and high-performing higher education institutions. However, the commission has failed miserably. It has become a bureaucratic behemoth, for which the nation is paying a high price in both financial and social terms.

One major concern is the lack of flexibility in the appointment and promotion of academics via the dreaded two-tier system, which encompasses a “basic pay scale” (BPS) tier and a “tenure track system” (TTS) tier. The latter brings higher salaries but also more exacting standards, and I have recently become aware of three TTS academics at one university who have been denied promotion by the HEC because of time they spent as acting heads of their departments or research centres.

The academics were appointed to these management positions because no BPS faculty members or full professors were available to fill them. And despite their administrative duties, they remained among the highest achievers at the university in terms of winning funding and publishing in high-impact journals. Accordingly, after due diligence – including the international panel reviews – they were promoted to associate professors by the university about a year ago, but the HEC has refused to ratify the university’s decision, as the law requires it to do, because of its pitiless adherence to a rule that was in operation between July 2014 and December 2017 banning TTS academics from taking on management duties (in the belief that it would detract from their teaching and research).

This may be the letter of the law, but it is clearly unfair and counterproductive to penalise TTS academics for acting as heads of departments to fulfil the needs of their institutions and the demands of their managers. There must surely be countless similar cases throughout the country, however.

The awkwardly phrased rules of the two-tier system are inflexible and outdated and are being used by the HEC to undermine the autonomy of public sector higher education institutions and to penalise the academics. Even when universities’ decisions are ratified by the commission, the delay can be considerable, leaving the academics in limbo. And this is only one example of how the HEC’s bureaucratic machinery is negatively impacting the performance of the sector.

Why should highly qualified academics be at the mercy of bureaucrats who often have no academic background and little understanding of the needs and realities of higher education? The fact is that autonomous higher education institutions would be much better placed to judge their own workforce needs and to judge the performance of those they appoint. Allowing them that autonomy would promote a healthier culture of representation, engagement and commitment among managers and academics alike.

Taking university regulation directly back into governmental hands might sound like a strange way to boost university managers’ freedom to operate; many countries feel the need for a semi-autonomous university regulator to insulate the sector from direct political interference. But in Pakistan, political interference has been replaced with bureaucratic stultification. The next HEC chairman must commit to stepping back from micromanaging universities and focus on the major issues confronting them. If the commission cannot or will not change, it must be put out of its misery.

These are extraordinary circumstances for Pakistani higher education. But extraordinary actions are needed if the sector is to make tangible progress. There is no more opportune time to take those actions than now.

Tahir H. Shah is a consultant and professor of advanced materials and technical textiles at the National Textile University in Faisalabad, Pakistan.

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Reader's comments (1)

Everyone pray the Education system Which impact the faculty and the students in Pakistan!!!!!