Bravo, Supreme Court!

Thursday / Dec 20 2012

Newspaper : The Express Tribune

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) was saved from being brutally mauled and its autonomy shattered by wise and timely intervention by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. On December 17, the Court upheld my petition and declared that the intervention from the prime minister’s office to appoint the executive director of the HEC was illegal. The Court also ruled that only the 18-member HEC had the legal powers to do this. Earlier, on November 26, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat had issued an order that had appointed a retired army major, currently secretary of the Ministry of Education, as executive director of the HEC with immediate effect.

The HEC has performed a truly remarkable role in improving Pakistan’s higher education sector in its short ten-year history. Most of this progress occurred during 2003-2008 when higher education programmes were liberally funded. This has been brought out by a number of independent international experts who have regarded the performance of the higher education sector as a model of excellence to be emulated in other developing countries. A comprehensive report was published by USAID after a year-long independent review of the progress made by the higher education sector during 2002-2008. It said: “One of the most striking aspects of the HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities … Quality goal targets were set as international standards and expectations. Faculty promotions, publications, PhD dissertations, research grants, and many of the HEC programmes were subject to these standards including evaluation by external peer reviewers.”

Another comprehensive review of Pakistan’s higher education system was done by Professor Michael Rode, chairman of the United Nations’ Commission on Science, Technology and Development, who visited Pakistan on a number of occasions. He wrote in 2008: “Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years. After the formation of the Higher Education Commission, a silent revolution occurred and probably the best digital library in the world was set up in Pakistan. Such a nationwide access to the latest literature is not even available in Europe or the US today … Most universities in Pakistan are today equipped with video-conferencing facilities and lectures are delivered regularly by professors from top universities in Europe, the US, etc.”

At the heart of the current problem lay the reappointment of Dr Sohail Naqvi, the brilliant executive director of the HEC. I had discovered him when I was the federal minister of science & technology and he was working at an MP-1 post in the IT and Telecommunication Division that was a part of the science ministry. Later, when I became the HEC chairman, he moved there and played a major role in its remarkable transformation. Dr Akram Sheikh was the first executive director of the HEC and later became the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. In both those roles, he, too, played an important part in the transformation of Pakistan’s higher education sector. Indeed, had Dr Sheikh not enthusiastically approved various key projects linked to higher education under his time at the Planning Division, the ‘silent revolution’ of the higher education sector would not have occurred. Projects of over Rs100 billion were approved and students sent abroad in the thousands. They are now contributing to the rapidly-changing landscape of our universities.

Disheartened by the recent turn of events, Dr Sohail Naqvi may not continue to remain with the HEC. This would be an irreparable loss to the Commission and bring to a sad end a decade of remarkable progress. The wonderful and enthusiastic contributions of Dr Naqvi, often under very adverse circumstances, will always be remembered.

In a country where corrupt politicians are making hay while the sun shines, there is no place for education, science, technology and innovation. The farce of democracy is, indeed, revenge against the poor and illiterate people of Pakistan. The industrial sector lies devastated because of massive corruption in the power sector and many industrialists have shifted operations to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other countries.

It is wonderful that there is at least one institution that stands in the way of this destruction — our Supreme Court.