It is popularly believed that the regulation of higher education if devolved to the provinces will lead to slackening of checks and balances in the universities. The devolution of educational governance of the country is hyped up as fragmentation of national standards of higher education. It is also assumed that a centralised system of command and control, with Higher Education Commission (HEC) under the direct administrative control of Prime Minister (PM), would ensure the transparent accountability in the higher education sector in Pakistan.
Debating the merits of these popular perceptions and experts’ assumptions will amount to rethinking what has been thought already by the Pakistani Parliament, as under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the legislative subject of “education”, including higher education, has been devolved to the provinces. The current placement of federal HEC, under the control of PM, is in direct conflict with the constitutional provisions, which according to Article 154, lies under the supervision and control of the Council of Common Interest (CCI). Therefore, the HEC Ordinance 2002 requires fundamental revisions as more than two dozen of its functions conflict directly with the provisions of the Post-18th Amendment Constitution, which has already been identified by Implementation Commission headed by Senator Raza Rabbani.
It is a common misperception that Supreme Court (SC) in 2011 has declared higher education as a federal subject, as it stopped the “devolution” of HEC. Neither the Supreme Court made any such judgment, which would fly in the face of the 18th constitutional amendment, nor the Federal Government (FG) ever notified the devolution of HEC. In fact, to tame the HEC, the functions of HEC were distributed among five federal ministries through a notification by FG. The SC rightly struck down the notification, which violated the autonomy of a federal institution, created under a federal legislation.
However, the confusion continues to prevail among the stakeholders of higher education sector leading to the tug of war between the FG and Provincial governments, spilling over appointment of Vice Chancellors and other matters, which are landing in the law courts.
While declaring the appointments of Vice Chancellors of universities in Punjab by the Punjab Government (PG) as legal, and rejecting the federal HEC’s stance, the Lahore High Court (LHC) in April 2017, declared that the provinces are fully empowered to develop standards in higher education institutions, which could be higher but not lower than the standards at federal levels. The LHC judgment clearly established the rules for educational governance of the country in the era of post 18th Amendment, whereas, the federal government can continue to establish a broad framework for educational reforms, but allowed the provincial governments to implement and extend the framework of reforms for the better.
Another landmark feature of the LHC judgment which should clarify the overlapping jurisdiction of higher education is that federal HEC would work under the supervision of Council of Common Interest (CCI), headed by Prime Minster and any future policies or regulations prepared by HEC would be routed through the CCI and would be legally binding if approved by CCI. This clarifies the future path for federal HEC to follow.
There is a long list of achievements of federal HEC, in promoting academic merit over the politics of power and patronage in the higher education sector, which should make all HEC chairmen and its staff proud of decades of their hard work.
Having controlled the financial matrix of hundreds of public and private universities in the country, federal HEC must remember, that now it time to move on and delegate more powers to the provinces. It is not possible to judge and administer according to the needs, of more than 180 universities with more than 100 nationwide campuses.
It is critically important to highlight the fact that SC never barred the provinces in creating their own HEC, as it is directly in accordance with the 18th Constitutional Amendment. As a matter of fact, the Punjab and Sindh established provincial HECs through the act of provincial assemblies in 2013 and 2014 respectively without being challenged in any of the law courts in the country.
The flames of the torch lit by federal HEC should be carried to all the provinces. Holding its place as equal among the federating units, federal HEC should work in cohort with its new saplings of the provincial HECs, to take up the functions that federal HEC has performed with diligence for more than a decade and to ensure that those functions are performed in accordance with the standards and regulations laid out by the federal HEC as well as in sync with the ground realities of the provincial planning and reforms of education. There is a dire need to adopt a bottom up approach to higher education as enshrined in the 18th Constitutional Amendment, where in the policies of education, from primary to higher, should be in line with the requirements and specific needs of the provinces.