From 2002 to 2008 was described as “the golden period” for higher education in the history of Pakistan by a world famous German professor, Wolfgang Voelter in an article entitled “The Golden Period” (November 23, 2008) in a major newspaper of Pakistan.
Prof Voelter had earlier been given a high civil award by the Government of Pakistan for his contributions towards the promotion of the higher education sector of Pakistan. I was humbled by his remarks about my contributions in the article and I quote “The overwhelming success of the HEJ Research Institute in Karachi, Dr Atta’s intellectual capacity, dedication and enthusiasm about science and his keenness to eliminate lousiness and ineptitude were the reasons for Prof Atta’s merit based nomination as minister of science and technology and later on as federal minister and chairman of the HEC. And a miracle happened. The scenario of education, science and technology in Pakistan changed dramatically after Prof Atta’s nomination as never before in the history of Pakistan. The chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Education recently announced it as ‘Pakistan’s golden period in higher education.’”.
In fact, I alone cannot take credit for what had happened. It was a team effort that led to the success of the HEC, with Dr Akram Sheikh serving as the executive director in the first year and then Dr Sohail Naqvi and his team of dedicated officers continuing and magnifying the excellent efforts for the last eights years that have dramatically changed the landscape of higher education.
The progress during 2002-2008 was so revolutionary that it sent shock waves across India and the attention of the Indian PM was formally drawn to what was seen as an emerging “threat” from Pakistan as Neha Mehta wrote in the article entitled “Pak Threat to Indian Science” (Hindustan Times, July 23, 2006).
Unfortunately the subsequent four years have been fraught with tremendous difficulties and the rapid progress made in the earlier period of the HEC has come to a grinding halt and in many cases completely reversed. In very short-sighted policies, the budget of the HEC has been drastically slashed (the development budget is presently only Rs15 billion instead of the expected Rs40 billion) thereby affecting the development programmes of most universities.
I had resigned in protest in October 2008, when the government had not released scholarship funds of some 5,000 scholars sent abroad for PhD, and these scholars were forced to collect funds in the mosques of Paris, Berlin, Beijing and a hundred other cities of Europe, the US and China.
On March 31, 2011 the government tried to shred the HEC by issuing a notification, in defiance of the law of the land and the constitution. I decided to fight to save the one organisation in the country that had been unanimously praised both at home and abroad for its outstanding performance and which had changed the landscape of higher education in Pakistan in a short period of six years.
I filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan with the plea that the government action was illegal and unconstitutional. The SC in its decision dated April 12, 2011 upheld my appeal and decided that the HEC could not be devolved as it was an autonomous regulatory authority and protected under the present constitution. As a result the HEC was saved and has continued to struggle on bravely under difficult circumstances.
However, recently the HEC has come under attack again, and an impending disaster looms ahead. The issue relates to the autonomy of the HEC to appoint senior officers. Under the present law of the HEC, the organisation has complete powers to make all appointments, as it is clearly stated in its ordinance: “(1) The commission may, from time to time, appoint such officers, servants, consultants and advisers as it may consider necessary for the efficient performance of its functions on such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the federal government.
(2) The commission shall make rules for recruitment of its employees.” In defiance of these legal powers of the commission the Establishment Division has recently issued a letter declaring the appointments made by the commission as illegal, stating that only the prime minister can make appointments at senior positions.
This is a vile attempt to take away the autonomy of this organisation and to appoint cronies that will dance to the tunes of those in power. The 18-member governing board of the HEC that presently approves all appointments of senior officers has two federal secretaries and many eminent educationists and personalities on it. If the powers of making appointments at senior positions are usurped and taken away from the board, it will be the end of this wonderful organisation that has drawn praise from many international agencies from around the world including the US, British Council and UN and cronyism will take over.
The HEC is not the first organisation whose board of governors has been challenged with regards to its authority to appoint its chief executive and employees. This issue has been taken up by the honourable courts in many cases like the boards of the electric supply companies.
In each of these cases the courts have decided unequivocally that the autonomy of the organisations cannot and should not be compromised by taking away the powers of the commission to make such appointments. This would be both illegal and immoral. In fact it would be a clear violation of the SC decision regarding the HEC that the status quo must be maintained.
The exact words of the SC decision of April 11, 2011 are: “The HEC shall continue discharging its functions and duties as it has been doing in the past until and unless a fresh legislation is promulgated”. The HEC has had these powers since 2002 and has been making such appointments since. It cannot be touched under the present laws and any attempt to change the manner in which it functions will violate the decision of the highest court of this land.
The recent attempt of the Establishment Division to curtail the powers of the HEC amounts to a clear contempt of the SC. The PM is the controlling authority of the HEC and it is his responsibility that the decision of the SC is respected and observed in letter and spirit. I appeal to the prime minister to take notice of this situation and to issue clear instructions to the Establishment Division not to defy the SC before irreversible harm has been done to the higher education sector of Pakistan and a great institution is destroyed.
The writer is former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of the Higher Education Commission.