Posts Tagged 'prime minister'

The devolution of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission

Every nation puts forth a fairly similar set of social objectives for its education system: it must meet the tests of quality, cost-effectiveness, access and equity (the last-named refers to access by all socio-economic segments). These are not usually aligned objectives, so that meeting one objective may increase the difficulty of meeting another. For instance, large, multi-disciplinary universities can offer a well-rounded quality education, something that might not be cost effective for small institutions. Hence, smaller institutions tend to offer more limited curricula and often focus on specific fields, such as engineering. So, are large universities a better choice?  Not necessarily: small institutions can be established in many more locations than a few large universities. This improves access, since many students may not, for various reasons, be able to live away from home.

In this context, what are we to make of the Pakistani government’s decision to devolve the activities of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to the provinces? Note that the HEC, which is the successor body to the University Grants Commission, is the primary regulator of higher education in the country. It also provides resources to support the upgrading of the country’s standards of higher education. On April 5th, 2011, the government announced that HEC’s functions would be devolved to the provinces.

Clarifiying further, on April 11th, 2011, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, stated that all stakeholders and political parties should be consulted regarding the devolution of the Higher Education Commission from the federal to the provincial level. The Prime Minister’s statement was based on the Constitution’s 18th Amendment passed by the Parliament in 2010, which relies on President Musharraf’s Local Government Ordinance in 2002. Specifically, the 18th amendment relates to devolution by modifying Article 38 of the Constitution to include the following: “the shares of the Provinces in all federal services, including autonomous bodies and corporations established by, or under the control of, the Federal Government, shall be secured and any omission in the allocation of the shares of the Provinces in the past shall be rectified.

So far, as ordered by the Supreme Court, HEC is continuing its regular functions until new legislation is introduced. However, most believe that its fate to be devolved is inevitable. Despite the continuing existence of the Inter-Provincial Committee that will manage a handful of higher education institutions, many observers will be dissatisfied with HEC’s devolution. Since March 2011, there have been various petitions filed in court to stop HEC’s devolution along with several discussions being held by provincial stakeholders with the President and Prime Minister.   Many stakeholders (HEC representatives, University Vice-Chancellors, student groups, some political parties such as Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam League and MQM, and many media outlets) have opposed the move to devolve HEC.

Some of the doubters are concerned that devolution is purely a political move.  For instance, some have argued that HEC’s devolution is an act of political revenge by regional politicians, whose requests to HEC to certify their education for political eligibility were rejected.

Others are concerned about the credibility of provincial regulation at a time when the educational system is still in its development phase.   For instance, even the Chief Justice of Pakistan noted that Pakistani students applying for further studies abroad may find that their degrees are not accepted because a credible institution like HEC is absent.  Such concerns stem from doubts about the capacity of the provinces to provide the required infrastructure, skills and capacity to perform HEC’s job.  Newspapers are filled with opinion pieces by academics, civil activists, Pakistani scholars teaching abroad and others expressing worries that the quality of higher education will decrease due to devolution because the provinces lack the experience to sustain the momentum established by HEC.

The reaction of some international donors – a key source of finance and expertise for developing higher education – is noteworthy.   Two key donors, USAID and the World Bank, for example, have apparently expressed concerns about the quality of education post-devolution and the difficulty of dealing with multiple institutions.[1]   A sub-text of the concern over multiple, provincial-level institutions is that they are likely to be more politicized than HEC.

The argument in favor of devolution is the expectation of benefit for the “common man” (Dawn News, 11th April, 2011).   Some academic proponents of devolution argue against HEC on the grounds that it was not promoting equity and was sacrificing access in the interest of quality.   Others argue the reverse, that HEC focused more on quantity than quality of higher education.

The proponents’ arguments also contain a political element, accusing opponents of receiving large public subsidies that they would lose in the event of devolution.  Some proponents argue that HEC was primarily focused on Punjab province and within Punjab, on its major cities, such as Lahore.   Of course, one could counter-argue that Punjab is the most populous province, so this outcome is inevitable.

Still, the key question: to what extent will the provinces take forward what HEC has achieved remains unanswered.

In an effort to clarify the debate, we focus on the achievement of the social objectives, i.e., quality, cost-effectiveness, access and equity, made possible by HEC’s interventions.

The interventions were several.  HEC’s initiatives included a nationally centralized digital library and database, Ph.D. scholarships, and faculty research scholarships. Students and faculty members going abroad with HEC funding were under agreement to return to Pakistan after finishing their individual programs.  HEC then attempted to ensure their employment opportunities across Pakistan. This further enabled smaller cities and towns to have qualified faculty who originally belonged to low and middle-income groups. Moreover, HEC appeared to follow a merit based system of choosing its scholars.

During HEC’s tenure, the number and quality of Ph.D.s sharply increased.  For instance, the number of PhDs granted since 2003 is almost equal to the number of PhDs since 1947.  Further, the best universities have risen in global rankings during this time.

Thus, it appears that HEC’s interventions were broad-based: they helped to increase the quality of education, and improve access and equity. Meeting these goals increased the national cost of education.  Foreign aid helped to meet the increased costs, and the cost to students actually decreased.

Will devolution do even better?   This is a difficult question to answer in the absence of analytical information and past experience.   However, given the socio-political and demographic similarities between countries of the South Asian subcontinent, the Indian experience may be instructive of what to do and what not to do.  In India, from the country’s independence in 1947 and until 1976, higher education was a provincial matter.   Apart from a few islands of educational excellence in the form of nationally controlled institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (which enrolled less than 5% of the country’s students), the rest of the system became deeply politicized during those three decades.   The state governments used their control over the universities to deliver on employment promises to favored constituencies primarily.  Hence, all the social objectives were bypassed.

In 1976, a constitutional amendment passed by Parliament made education a joint responsibility of the national and state governments.   The national government would henceforth be responsible for setting the social objectives of the time and the benchmarks to meet them, while the states would be the implementors, i.e., be responsible for ensuring that the objectives were met.   However, since the national government possessed no way of penalizing the states if they did not meet the benchmarks, the situation actually worsened.   The states simply continued what they had been doing, now unburdened by even the nominal responsibility to meet social objectives.

It was not until 1997, i.e. another two decades later, that real change occurred.   The national government decided to shift the burden to the provinces for determining objectives and meeting them.   In other words, power was devolved to the provinces again. This was, however, not done by changing the law.  Instead, the national government simply stopped trying to impose standards.

Some states, particularly those ruled by progressive governments, such as in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, responded actively in a rather interesting manner: lacking funding, they encouraged the private sector to set up new institutions.   They also introduced reservations of seats to meet the equity objective, and encouraged new institutions to be located widely all over their state as a way of improving access.

The private sector responded with an enthusiasm that was unexpected.   Over the subsequent years, the number of colleges rose from 8,750 colleges at the start of 1997 to 27,000 in 2010, largely due to the growth of private colleges.  Further, the cost of education came down as a result of the entry of efficient private colleges.  Thus, from the point of view of cost-effectiveness, equity and access, the de facto devolution helped achieve some key social objectives.

But what about quality?  One significant outcome of the last decade in India has been a sharp decrease in general education graduates compared with professionally trained graduates.   This is because the private sector colleges seek to at least cover costs if not make surpluses, which is only possible in engineering, management and other professional fields.  Second, the quality of education in the new private colleges is quite poor since the rapid growth in physical infrastructure is not matched by the availability of qualified faculty.   Third, the deep politicization and the general malaise within the state-owned system still remain unchanged.

Alarmed by the quality impacts, the national government is, as of 2011, trying to reassert its constitutional prerogative over setting standards.   Several bills are under consideration of the Indian Parliament, including one which establishes a national regulator over standards and gives the regulator the power to accredit colleges and universities.   These bills are strongly opposed by a coalition of state governments and local business interests, who view education as a source of profit (even though this profit-making in education is illegal).  At this time, the trajectory of devolution is uncertain for the Indian system.

It seems that both countries are slowly moving in opposite directions regarding the governance of higher education. Essentially, where higher education in India was more decentralized earlier, there are efforts to somewhat re-centralize higher education (such as through the proposed Higher Education Reform Bill), whereas the opposite is true in Pakistan.

What lessons can be gained from the Indian experience in terms of achieving social objectives through the devolution of higher education in Pakistan?

To begin with, it seems that devolution of HEC may encourage a spurt of private colleges, especially if the provincial governments encourage the private sector to be involved. Then, like India, it is probable that access and equity will increase but quality of education will decrease because of fewer resources available to these smaller private colleges. Meanwhile, costs will likely be controlled due to the high efficiency of private colleges, and the mix of education might move towards more professional fields, such as engineering and business studies.

One new option that the Indian experience suggests of what to do differently is that provincial governments can establish public-private partnerships in which the government provides subsidies to private colleges or private companies can manage public colleges. This can increase freedom of choice.

Another is to move quickly to prevent devolution from increasing politicization of the university system.   This may be done by improving the autonomy of the university system by increasing the share of alumni and faculty in its governance.

Furthermore, rather than simply viewing HEC as an entity that should either exist in its current form or be entirely devolved to the provinces, serious thought should be given to retaining HEC while exploring how to separate its standard-setting role over the quality of education from other educational mandates which may be shared with or devolved to provinces, such as increasing equity and access.


Rafiq Dossani, Senior Research Scholar, Stanford University and CEO, College Builder, Inc.

Maham Mela, PhD candidate, Teachers College, Columbia University;
B.A., M.A., Stanford University


“All Stakeholders Should Be Consulted on HEC Devolution: PM.” DAWN News. 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <>

“Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.” 30 April 2010. Government of Pakistan. 16 April 2011 <;.