Like many other politically inquisitive lawyers, I was keen on the much talked about “100 days of the government”. Politicians from the government and opposition issued remarks and statements about the performance of the government. I was most curious about the stance and development in the most promised manifesto of the government that is education – to be more specific higher education institutions. One of the media addresses I heard mentioned a proposal for a Sufi University being set up in Punjab and that is when I began to ponder how these countless institutions can maintain a reasonable standard of education. I have generally witnessed erosion of public trust in higher education and the prime reason is that each institute runs by its own guidelines under numerous departments and there is no uniformity in the system.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan, while hearing a Human Rights Case in the Lahore Registry on Saturday directed the Higher Education Department of Punjab to get its recommendations made by a Cabinet Sub-Committee, placed before the Provincial Cabinet and file a compliance report in the court within 15 days. These recommendations, inter alia, are aimed at regulating the affairs of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in the private sector, operating in the province and also provide for policy mechanisms to primarily curb the tendencies of illegal affiliate colleges and to address grievances of students arising there from. According to documents submitted before the Court, the Higher Education Department intends to introduce a Uniform Charter for all HEIs operating in the private sector in Punjab, amend the Punjab Higher Education Commission Act 2015 to make it an effective oversight body, provide a regular monitoring and evaluation framework for private sector HEIs and also revise the guidelines/procedures for grant of charters to private sector HEIs by making them more competitive with stringent qualitative pre-conditions.
Such haphazard patterns of growth of HEIs in Punjab in an isolated fashion by different departments have done much damage to the collective impact of higher education and research in the province
All these policy measures which have been recommended by the Cabinet sub-Committee are certainly of prime importance. As far as the private sector HEIs regulations are concerned, such interventions may only cater to a fragment of the Higher Education sector in the province. The real problem lies somewhere else. For instance, 5 departments of the Punjab Government are regulating the higher education in bits and pieces, each according to its functional character. The Health Department has established plenty of Medical Colleges and Universities of varying standards and quality. The Agriculture Department has set up its own agriculture universities which focus less on agricultural research and more on the commercially attractive courses in business administration, IT etc. Similarly, the Industries Department is in the run to increase the number of Technical Universities in the province. If that was not enough, we also see the Livestock Department not lagging behind in this race to establish and own a university as it has also set up at least two Veterinary Universities in the province. Such haphazard patterns of growth of HEIs in Punjab in an isolated fashion by different departments have done much damage to the collective impact of higher education and research in the province. The synergies are lost somewhere in between due to individual efforts of these departments which lack any cohesive strategies.
Since the Supreme Court is already looking into the issue; it is perhaps the most opportune time that all universities and colleges are mandated to the Higher Education Department alone. Reliance should not be placed on the functional characteristics and the regulatory checks which are being brought in for the private sector HEIs. Recent policy recommendations by the cabinet committee may also be extended to all HEIs in both public and private sectors, irrespective of their functional relatedness to any particular department. That will help the departments such as Health, Agriculture, Livestock and Industries to solely focus on providing quality services while rendering the education division to the HEC. Educational reforms are pivotal in shaping the future of our country and by setting the priorities straight; the government may eventually transform the Higher Education Sector in the largest province of Pakistan.
The writer is a Lawyer and Director at Human Rights Protection Center. She formerly worked in United Nations, NY.
Published in Daily Times, January 21st 2019.