May 2, 2011

Higher stakes

Perhaps, the way forward is a mechanism through which provinces can make financial allocations to the HEC out of their devolved educational budgets

By Sarah Humayun

There has been a lot of thoughtful discussion, in this paper amongst others, on the proposed devolution of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Broadly speaking, it has focused either on the political and constitutional imperatives or lack thereof behind the move, or on the positive and negative changes brought about by the HEC. I want to frame the question in a slightly different way. It may be that a genuine if counterproductive political point will be made by devolving the HEC from a federal to a provincial bureaucracy; and it may be that the HEC is not indispensable to higher education. So leaving this aside, let’s attend to the specificity of the subject under discussion.

What are the specific benefits to higher education in being managed by the provinces? And, supposing that it is a good idea to give the provinces financial control over higher education budgets and a federal body control over ‘quality’, can a regulatory body which has no control over funds be effective? What would be the academic logic of such a bifurcation? Would it genuinely give the provinces ‘control’ over higher education, rather than just control over a chunk of money; and what does control of higher education mean in any case?

I do not claim to know the answers, but I think those of us who have a stake in the progress of higher education in the country do deserve to see these questions addressed. (Quite possibly the HEC hasn’t always been sensitive to them either, which is why it has sometimes got bogged down in the hazards of micro-management and red tape.) As it stands, the debate about higher education is turning out to be too much about control of money and not enough about what the money is going to be spent on.

Legislators need to keep in mind that how the budgets on higher education are spent and who spends them must be decided taking into account what the objectives and needs of higher education are. Institutions of higher education are part of the ‘constituency’ that has to be catered for in making decisions about higher education, and just not the provinces or the centre understood as geographical and administrative entities.

The practice of devolution does not stop at the provincial level. If you agree that universities should be autonomous from both federal and provincial control within reasonable limits (and these limits need to be defined keeping in mind the purpose of the university, an area where there has been very little discussion); that they themselves are best placed to enable research and teaching, then the best mechanism of oversight might be an autonomous interprovincial one which is headed by a combination of educational specialists, bureaucrats and political representatives. It should be part of its mandate to facilitate the academic autonomy (which requires a degree of financial autonomy) and excellence of universities. There do need to be checks on the universities, of course; but to think that they will take the first opportunity they can to lower the bar is (rightly or wrongly) to apply the same argument that is at present being made about the provinces.

At present the HEC is best placed to evolve into such a body, and so is a valuable asset. Its track record in fostering the independence of higher education is a question for those who have seen it at work, from whom we need to hear more -- more on both good and bad experiences of working with what has been a somewhat centralised bureaucracy, and on what sort of body would be ideal to oversee and promote higher education.

The HEC’s considerable success did not come about simply because it got a pot of money to spend. It can be attributed to two additional factors: the commission is headed by experienced academics, and it is mindful of the international dimension of higher education in its work. Both these things are not optional in the economy of higher education. The loss of this international dimension, which was substantially absent before the HEC’s intervention, would take higher education back to the crippled state in which it existed some years ago and which is certainly not yet a thing of the past.

Legislators and the concerned public need to recognise that there can be no such thing as a purely ‘devolved’ or ‘centralised’ higher education (and unfortunately provincial, in the sense that is current in political discourse in Pakistan, often just translates into a ‘mini-me’, a smaller version of the national) because it is carried out in its own sphere of activity that is not delimited purely spatially. It includes physical and intellectual resources potentially anywhere in the world.

A large part of the work of the modern university is to put academics in touch with each other, to facilitate national and international collaborations, to acquire books, equipment and expertise that are needed for whatever research interests or teaching needs their faculties have, and to draw students from potentially anywhere. The best geographical setting for higher education is one that allows researchers to ‘network’ and access resources wherever they might be located. States or provinces cannot own the fruits of higher education; but they can nurture and benefit from them. So a body tasked with looking after higher education must necessarily deal with it as an activity that is not only interprovincial but international in its scope.

Statements by Senator Rabbani indicate that the government does not envisage dispensing altogether with an autonomous regulatory body for higher education. This is good news. Why, then, lose for the sake of constitutional pedantry the expertise and constructive work of the HEC? And why render it powerless to the point of impotence?

To move forward, perhaps we should think about a mechanism through which provinces can make financial allocations to the HEC out of their devolved educational budgets. This would give the provinces control over the money they want to spend on higher education and an autonomous body like the HEC with the ‘capacity’ to do so can spend it with a degree of control over the results. Such an arrangement will allow the provinces to air their concerns before projects are approved, and for interprovincial coordination.

Crucially, it would also allow for long-term planning. Evolving a devolved mechanism for running an autonomous HEC may be an alternative to the federal government sacrificing the HEC as a cash cow to the provinces.

Like other armchair commentators, I cannot judge the role that international grants and loans are playing or will play in these, no doubt, very complicated financial negotiations. But greed is not an exclusively federal or provincial subject. Quite likely there will be conflict and complications. But that cannot always be avoided. One can only hope that by collaborating in the interests of higher education provincial legislators will vindicate the spirit of the 18th Amendment and show that the elected governments of the provinces can behave in a responsible manner.

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