M Murtaza Noor
The 18th Constitutional Amendment and recent decision by Lahore High Court not only empowered provincial governments in higher education governance but also, at the same time, posed greater responsibility towards improving higher education and brining this important sector at par with international standards. The devolved higher education governance structure is in line with best international practices, as according to 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. Moreover, according to study titled “Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations” conducted by the Forum of Federation, a Canada-based think tank, in ten out of twelve federal countries , main responsibility for governing, funding of public sector universities and approval of new academic programs lie with federating units.
In August 2002, a high powered Steering Committee on Higher Education, after detailed deliberations and consultations with all stakeholders, submitted a detailed summary to federal government for improving governance and quality in higher education sector of the country. A model university ordinance was suggested towards improving governance and management in higher education sector with special emphasis over adherence to merit based appointments and promotions, holding of regular meetings of statutory bodies , adoption of explicit code of conduct, faculty empowerment, evaluation incentivization and great role of faculty in decision making, de-politicization of campuses, investing in academic infrastructure and reforms, streamlining disbursement of funds, involvement of civil society and corporate sector and sustainably of reforms in higher education sector.
Reviewing another important issue of provincial and federal tensions in higher education sector (which still exist), the Steering Committee recommended that responsibility for proper governance and management should lie with the provincial government while federal government should provide advice and technical assistance in higher education sector. However, this matter might have to be revisited over the long term. These consensus-based recommendations are still relevant and provide a detailed roadmap for improving higher education in Pakistan.
One of the great challenges being faced in governance structure of higher education of Pakistan is “right man for right job”, I mean, merit based appointments of well reputed and capable academicians as heads of higher education bodies including universities. According to Mr. Jamil Salmi, former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education program, there is still enough room for improvement for the institutions in Pakistan. Ismail Badat, the British Council’s South Asia regional manager for higher education, emphasized need to “depoliticise the sector while raising standards of provision and quality assurance mechanisms.
Endorsing the constitutional role of the provinces in higher education, the Lahore High Court (LHC) in its latest judgment ruled that the provincial government is fully empowered to make rules and appoint VCs of public universities. Accepting the Punjab government’s appeal against an earlier verdict, an LHC division bench authoriSed the provincial government to appoint the VCs. Now, it is the responsibility of the provincial govts to ensure the appointments of heads of universities through a merit based transparent mechanism. The appointments of the VCs should be undertaken by an independent search committee, comprising well reputed academicians not govt officials. In appointment of VCs, more weightage should be given to administrative experience/leadership qualities along with teaching/research background. In order to avoid any ambiguity and unnecessary ligation, the criteria for appointment of VCs and heads of other higher education bodies, should be prescribed, quite clear, specific, measurable and in line with indigenous requirements/ realities. There have been serious concerns by the stakeholders when these important tasks of developing criteria and scrutiny of applications for the post of VCs are assigned to junior inexperienced officials which require immediate attention of relevant authorities as these acts raise questions over the transparency of the selection process.
In order to discourage adhocism in higher education sector, all the important slots should be advertised and filled well in time. The role of statutory/governing bodies needs to be strengthened so that decisions for the betterment of higher education sector should be undertaken through collective wisdom and proper deliberations. All the important stakeholders especially faculty should be taken on board in important policy decisions. In addition to universities, federal and provincial higher education autonomous entities/departments should also play their pivotal facilitative role in addressing higher education governance challenges through promoting culture of merit, democratic governance, openness, transparency and discouraging favouritism, victimization and centralization of powers. The heads of these autonomous organizations should act as role model leadership for the whole higher education sector.
The role of the provincial governments should be facilitative and supportive towards universities by respecting autonomy of universities. The amendments in respective universities’ acts should be brought in consultation with relevant stakeholders. A transparent institutional performance evaluation system can definably improve the quality of teaching, research and higher education governance.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.