A Case Against HEC Devolution

In terms of actual expenses, the five corps commanders cost us way more than the entire budget of HEC. If our politicians need money, they should have the guts to conduct a thorough audit of money wasted by the army elite. And if we devolve the HEC and let the provinces work at their own pace, the current inequalities in resources and standards will then become the regional norm.

For the past month or so I have been writing and canvassing intensely in favor of HEC. My support for HEC, in hindsight, is deeply personal as well as pragmatic. In personal terms, as an academic, defending education-related public institutions is like a second nature to me. Today, however, I will offer my defense of HEC mostly in pragmatic terms as related to the future of higher education in Pakistan. And maybe in this cathartic writing, the personal and the public of my multiple selves will find a tolerable wrietrly voice.

The views in opposition to HEC come mostly under the garb of provincial autonomy and the need for a decentralized system of government. The question of provincial autonomy is crucial to the political future of Pakistan as it enables the provinces to structure their own systems according to the mores and expectations of their own regional constituencies. That is why the question of provincial autonomy was central to the 18th amendment. I am quite sanguine about the rights of the provinces and agree that the federal government should cede most of its powers to the provinces.

Another group of very prominent figures blame HEC for squandering national wealth by creating too many universities and institutions in too short a time. Some members of the public and media also suggest that to maintain the so-called HEC executives and other workers is an unnecessary financial burden.

However, if feel that there is no need to devolve the HEC and, furthermore, I assert that a centralized policy-implementing and advisory institution is crucial to the future health of Pakistan and its citizens. I offer my reasons for this assertion below, but please do keep in mind that my argument is in no way exhaustive and might need some more output from you the readers.

One reason HEC is crucial to the future of higher education in Pakistan is simply the internationalized nature of higher education, especially in hard sciences and other research-related fields. Since its inception, HEC has sponsored, directed, or supported hundreds of graduate students all over the world. These students were centrally selected, trained, and then sent to international universities with a constant mentoring link with the HEC. Here are some details:

Under the various HEC overseas scholarship programs to date, 17,529 candidates were shortlisted out of which 3,888 scholars were sent abroad    during 2003 – 2011. Out of these 3,888 scholars, 242 scholars were sent for Masters, 3,062 were sent for Master leading to PhD while 584 had been sent to pursue their Post Doctorate programs. So far, a total of 188 scholars have returned with a Master degree, 620 have returned with a PhD degree and 389 have returned with a Post Doctorate while 2,173 Master, PhD and Post Doc candidates are currently abroad and are returning on a monthly basis.

Similarly, a total of 2,132 scholars were selected for Indigenous Undergraduate programs, 2,262 were awarded local Graduate programs and 4,479 were granted Indigenous PhD scholarships. Out of these, so far a total of 824 scholars have completed their Undergraduate programs, 1,177 have    completed their Master programs while 523 have completed their PhD from local universities. (Full Report here: http://wp.me/p1euiY-11A)

As someone who went through ten years of graduate education in the US on my own, I can truly value the importance of being connected to a central institution in Pakistan while finishing one’s degree abroad. In fact, both at my current and past institution, I encountered several HEC sponsored students: I found all of them to be exceptionally talented in their fields of study and they all confirmed to me how important a role did HEC play through its administrative, mentoring, and support programs in their stay abroad.

Another aspect of HEC achievements that does not get a lot of attention is the amount and quality of research resources that they have made available for the scholars and students:

Today the National Digital Library is accessible by approximately 400 institutions. The eligibility for access to the information resources is       exclusively for institutes recognized by the Higher Education Commission i.e. Public and Private Universities and Degree Awarding Institutes (DAIs). Furthermore, R & D organizations, NGOs, and as well as not-for-profit organizations where primary focus is on either education or research are also provided limited access to the e-resources through HEC Digital Library. (Full Report: http://wp.me/p1euiY-12a)

Thanks to HEC initiative, there is now a world-class digital library available to all aspiring students and young professors, which, in the long run, enables them to be internationally competitive in their respective fields of study. In fact, the HEC digital database, to my surprise, has more extensive resources than my very well funded research university and that is possible because HEC has the centralized financial backing of the Federal Government.

Yes, the provinces can accomplish this too, but in order to be internationally competitive, the higher education system does require a central, non-partisan, institution that can enable access, implement quality control, and enhance scholarly productivity in a manner that all provinces, despite their cultural and regional differences, are at par. If we devolve the HEC and let the provinces work at their own pace, the current inequalities in resources and standards will then become the regional norm.

Another argument fielded against HEC comes from some powerful figures within the Pakistani academy itself. Some prominent scholars from major universities have indicted HEC for doing too much too quickly: building too many universities, raising the faculty salaries too much, and by raising the salaries of HEC staff itself too much. This argument posits HEC as a large bureaucracy, which happens to be too expensive to maintain, does not have a good track record, or a good long-term plan. I find this argument completely unsound. First of all, building too many universities too quickly is not a bad thing: Pakistan needed these regional and national universities simply because of our exploding population. Now, these institutions are there: the infrastructure has been built, which is the hardest part of building anything, maintaining them cannot be harder than building them. In terms of salaries: well, a nation attempting to be internationally competitive must pay its teachers and scholars well. How else would they compete in a global open market of knowledge? There is another way of looking at this expenditure, including the money spent on HEC staff itself, and I will attempt do this through a hypothetical, analogical comparison.

We know that more than sixty percent of Pakistan’s budget is spent on defense. Let us do a hypothetical comparison between what it costs to maintain a high-level HEC official and a general. From my experience in the army, here is what is provided for a Lieutenant General, officially and unofficially: A corps commander is provided a palatial house that can sometimes span several acres. The house is staffed by a full kitchen staff, cleaning staff, and, and honor guard provided by local battalions on rotation basis. The corps commander has an array of staff cars for his official use within the cantonment, a few land cruisers for the field, access to helicopters and fixed-wing planes for travel. All the bills, electricity, water, gas, are borne by the state. These “luxuries” are over and above the pay and allowances, which might also be substantial. I am pretty sure that in terms of actual expenses, the five corps commanders cost us way more than the entire budget of HEC.

I understand that within the normative narrative of Pakistan army, the generals have probably “earned” their privileges. But all they are useful for is to maintain the present of the country. HEC and its staff have the mission of securing a better future for the rest of the youth of Pakistan and at a fraction of the cost. And yet, none of our ardent politicians or our strident media has ever brought this comparative analysis up. If we are so worried about funding HEC, let us also reevaluate the expenses of the army elite and let us bring those down to the level of the poor nation that we are. We cannot have an increasingly improvised population in the same country where their defenders live like kings. And we cannot rob the same improvised population of an institution that in so many ways is crucial to their upward mobility in an extremely hierarchical, feudal, and unequal culture.

So here I stand: let HEC function as the great institution that it is and if our politicians need money, they should have the guts to conduct a thorough audit of money wasted by the army elite. That would be a fight worth fighting, for the opponent is deeply entrenched with a very strong sense of its own entitlements. That would be a noble fight for the rights of Pakistani people and their future.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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