M Murtaza Noor
PAKISTAN came into existence in 1947 as a federal country.
The Founder of Pakistan Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah always advocated federal form of government and provincial autonomy. Government of India Act, 1935 was adopted as interim constitution in 1947 by putting education including universities under the control of provincial governments. Education as a subject remained under the purview of provincial governments in 1956 and 1962 constitutions while 1973 kept education under the concurrent legislative list. Through 18th constitutional amendment, the Concurrent Legislative List was abolished and education became part of exclusive domain of the Provincial Legislature, under article 142(c) of the Constitution. Through new entry in the constitution, Standards of higher education now falls under Part-II of the Federal Legislative List as shared responsibility of both the federal and provincial governments.
Education is defined as the process of teaching and learning, usually at school, college or university. Education, therefore, is an extensive and wide-ranging legislative subject, including all tiers of education in a province including higher education. In Pakistan, only 11 % of universities (20 out of 183) are federally chartered universities while the majority of the universities, 89% (163 out of 189) are chartered by provincial governments. Endorsing the constitutional role of the provinces in education, the Lahore High Court (LHC) in its latest judgment ruled that the provincial govt is fully empowered to make rules and appoint vice-chancellors (VCs) of public universities.
Accepting the Punjab government’s appeal against an earlier verdict, an LHC Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah authorized the provincial government to appoint the vice-chancellors. The court ruled this in its long-awaited judgment on an intra-court appeal against the verdict by a single judge Bench. The 59-page detailed judgment stated that the provincial legislature has the power to set standards i.e., procedures and criteria for selection of the VC, as long as, they are not below the minimum and baseline standards set by the federation,” said the verdict announced by a division bench consisting of Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shan and Justice Shujaat Ali Khan in the VCs appointment case. The Division Bench stated that the province, under the legislative subject of ‘education’ in the unwritten residuary legislative list, was empowered to develop standards in institutions of higher education for the province.
The verdict authored by the chief justice added the HEC Ordinance of 2002 set minimum and non-binding guidelines for the appointment of VCs in public universities. The judgment also questioned the performance of Council of Common Interest (CCI), saying that the role of the council over the years had been disturbingly dormant. The chief justice directed the CCI to review all the standards in institutions of higher education framed by the HEC in order to make them constitutionally compliant in the next six months. Under the article 154 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the court also directed the HEC as well as federal government that in the future, the commission would work under the supervision and control of the CCI and any policies or regulations prepared by the commission shall be routed through the CCI and will only be considered to be legally binding, if approved by the CCI. The division bench directed government/chancellor to proceed with the appointment of the VCs for the four public sector universities in question strictly on the basis of recommendations of the search committee by considering a panel of three people in the case of each university.
According to the LHC ruling , the federation can set standards in institutions of higher education always over the minimum national criteria, as it caters to all public-sector universities in the country. The division bench added that the Provinces are free and independent to build upon these minimum standards, make them more stringent or improve upon them, keeping in view their own educational roadmap, as well as, to meet their own political, social, economic and cultural realities. Post 18th constitutional amendment, provincial autonomy and cooperative federalism stands revitalized and must be protected and encouraged. Now, it is the collective responsibility of all tiers of the government and concerned stakeholders to ensure the implementation of this historic judgment. Being a federal country having central and provincial governments, Pakistan also needs to learn from other federal countries’ experiences. As per the QS ranking 2016, among the top five countries with strongest higher education systems in the world, four countries are federations with the effective role of federating units in higher education sector. According to study titled “Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations” conducted by the Forum of Federation, a Canada-based institute, in most of the federal countries (10 out of 12), primary responsibility for governing, funding of public sector HEIs and approval of new academic programs lie with federating units.
Realizing their responsibilities in a post-18th amendment scenario, the provincial governments should allocate 25% of total the education budget to the higher education sector in order to meet growing needs. The first and foremost requirement is to follow transparent and merit based mechanisms for the appointment of university heads through independent search committee comprising reputed academicians. The role of the provincial governments should be facilitative and supportive towards universities through autonomous bodies led by higher education experts. The autonomy of universities needs to be protected and respected. The amendments in respective universities’ acts should be brought in consultation with relevant stakeholders. On the pattern of Punjab government, remaining provincial governments should also prepare roadmaps for strengthening higher education and mid-term development frameworks (MTDFs). A transparent institutional performance evaluation system by the autonomous provincial entities can definably improve the quality of teaching, research and standards at provincial level. There is also dire need to establish a permanent inter provincial form to share expertise and experience in higher education sector so that provinces may learn from one another ‘s experiences.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.