Higher education: administrative battle
DECADES of neglect have drawn our universities to the levels which are incompatible with the ambitions of the country to develop as a modern society and a competitive economy.
As it stands now, higher education does not compare well with its counterparts in the region, and unless reformed, it may become an obstacle to the continuation of economic growth instead of becoming its main engine.
A rare and unfortunate combination of problems plagues the universities in Pakistan. They are both small in size and low in performance. The quantitative and qualitative ills call for radical transformations.
Several plans and strategies have outlined the situation and proposed solutions. Until a few years ago, however, little had been done to turn these plans into concrete actions.
Four essential ingredients were missing: the political will, a reforming framework, the financial resources and the implementation capacity.
Today, these elements are in place with the creation in 2002 of the Higher Education Commission: the presence of a strong leadership with a clear political backing, and a substantial increase in budgetary allocations to universities.
The HEC has been providing funding and incentives for improvement and quality advanced education.
However, mechanisms to ensure the autonomy of accreditation will need to be established in the medium term.
One approach would be for the HEC to become the accreditor of the accreditors.
Another would be to have those functions carried out by an autonomous organisation charged with monitoring and recognising accreditors.
Periodic reviews of accreditors would provide an important check on the quality of their activities and also ensure that their focus is the quality of teaching and learning, research, and service.
In the case of councils, periodic reviews and monitoring will also help protect against attempts by professions to seek unfair advantage for their members or unduly intrude upon academic and institutional autonomy.
A potential conflict of interest is built into the current quality assurance system because the HEC is responsible for the management and direction of accreditation (including ranking universities) through the Quality Assurance Agency and the accreditation councils, while being responsible for the allocation of funds to universities and institutes.
In the long run, the position of the HEC will be strengthened if the accreditation process is autonomous, thus separating quality decisions from financial decisions.
There is a potential conflict between quality assurance activities in the provinces and at the national level.
The HEC has set up and funded four monitoring units to look after quality assurance matters in each province.
However, after an initial good start, the provincial leaders feel that the HEC is moving into an area they controlled prior to the establishment of the HEC. The HEC counters that it has ultimate authority over the quality assurance of higher education at all levels.
However, some accommodation could be worked out that recognises the common interests of the parties involved, and the need for some central decision-making under the HEC authority, so that quality assurance is not sidetracked by administrative disputes.
RAJA MASROOR HASSAN QAZI