Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken a notice of the declining standards of higher education in the country. In a bid to reform the education sector, the Court has started from the ‘home’ ground, the institutions of legal education in the country, which are a small but significant part of state university education, suffering from a severe crisis of governance.

As the proverbial fish rots from the head, the crisis of governance in state universities stems from the appointment of Vice Chancellor (VC), the principal academic and executive head of the university. In 2017, twenty one universities in the country were reported to be working, without regular VCs. The situation is no different even today, with dozens of universities in the country are without regular VCs. They are being run by acting VCs, lingering on short term extensions, with dwindling ownership of university affairs.

The appointment of VCs has become a contentious issue, inviting law suits not only from competing candidates, but from within the tiers of federal and provincial governments with overlapping mandates in educational administration, after the Eighteenth Amendment in the Constitution. In the recent past, the appointments of VCs by Punjab Higher Education Department were challenged in the Lahore High Court by the federal government.

Rather than being a merit based competition between high profile academics, the appointments of VCs by the federal and provincial governments through search committees have been arena for faction fighting, involving strong men from bureaucracy and politics, who field their own candidates for their private gains. This tug of war in higher education sector, leading to wasteful litigation is deterring serious candidates from applying for the leadership positions in the state universities.

The snags in the appointments of suitable candidates on the position of VCs, negatively affect the entire system of education and management of university. There is slackening of internal control mechanism, which leaves the door open for the autocratic management and financial corruption in the universities. There is no participatory system of planning and setting of strategic goals engaging the teachers at the universities. The records of the meetings of statutory bodies like Senate, Syndicate or Board of Governors, are treated like classified information, which are kept away from the staff of the universities.

The student unrest in the state universities which often gets spirally out of control is one of the dire consequences of the lack of effective command and control system, headed by a regular VC. Catching news headlines in the media, the student unrest is usually followed by a police action, in which rioting students are arrested. Few days later, a compromise reaches between the university and the district administration, and the students are released back to the university. The vicious cycle stops and resumes with the next generation of disgruntled students. No long term studies have been conducted to understand and address the problem. Policing of student affairs and suppression of their legitimate demands, such as rise in tuition fees, is an easy way out, with disastrous repercussions for the governance of universities in Pakistan.

Despite education being enshrined in the constitution as a public good, state universities in Pakistan have already begun raising their user charges and tuition fees to such an extent that the proportion of self-generated funds in total expenditure had risen from 26 per cent in 1992-1993 to 49 percent in 2000-01. The formation of Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002 has accelerated the trend of privatization of higher education, despite phenomenal increase in higher education budgetary allocations in the last decade.

It is high time that HEC should try and bridge the class divide, by capping the cost of higher education in state and private sector universities, and allocate more financial assistance to students in the Pakistani universities. Otherwise, Pakistani universities, risk closing the doors of education to students from the working class backgrounds.

The very purpose of revamping the former University Grants Commission (UGC) to form HEC was to claim Pakistan’s share in the global higher education, by making Pakistani universities competitive and attractive to foreign students. Without being able to draw out any foreign students, however, on the contrary, the HEC has given away, the millions of dollars and pounds of hard earned foreign exchange, to the European and American universities, by providing funding for Pakistani students sent for higher education overseas.

It might have been necessary to produce high quality PhDs by training them overseas, to give impetus to developing knowledge economy of Pakistan. However, after a decade of investments in training youth in higher education, it is high time to absorb the trained human resource for a radical transformation of the academic standards of Pakistani universities. The pronounced failure to productively utilize the highly trained human resource, educated at a great expense to national exchequer, is indicated by the protests of fresh PhD, right at the door steps of HEC, who were denied jobs in state universities.