Choose democracy, not the HEC

Published: April 21, 2011

Few, if any, have bothered to objectively and critically weigh the HEC’s success against its failures.

Criticism of the government’s decisions is becoming more of a habit than a reformative concern among our so called experts.

As far as media campaigns to save the Higher Education Commission (HEC) are concerned, some would even suggest that democracy is being slaughtered at the altar of activism.

Since the federal government’s announcement to devolve HEC, there has been a plethora of articles, blogs, letters, and comments, most of them supportive of the commission’s authority in matters relating to higher education. Few, if any, have bothered to objectively and critically weigh the HEC’s success against its failures as a central body in promoting higher education in the country.

Hardly anyone has taken the pain to propose discussing bigger questions like:

What are the objectively verifiable indicators of progress in education?

Do higher rankings of universities and greater number of research papers ensure public good coming from the highly educated?

How much have the HEC’s ventures cost the country’s troubled economy as against the economic boost brought by it, if any?

And above all, how transparent has HEC been in its responsibilities? (There have been numerous scandals of corruption and irregularities in this body over the past few years.)

Roping in the military and the judiciary

But what shocked me above all is Dr Attaur Rahman’s article ‘Time to Save the Higher Education Commission’ published in The Express Tribune on April 5, 2011.

After bragging about the HEC’s achievements, which are obviously debatable, and quoting personal opinions of a few in support of the HEC, Dr Rahman rushes on to voice his hope that the country’s political, as well as military, leadership will intervene to save the body from devolution. He also immediately drops a line to the attention of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to take a suo motu notice of the commission’s devolution case. In two lines, the ex-chairman of the HEC suggests another conflict between the government and the two most powerful institutions of the country. Are we really going through these times?

Thankfully, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow HEC to function till further notice has not followed any sou motu action – something that has become symbolic of what has been termed ‘judicial activism’ and considered anti-democratic in the wake of the hassle over the 18th amendment. Though prematurely regarded as “coming to HEC’s rescue,” the apex court has taken a decision that is primarily pro-democracy. Since the HEC is protected under the 2002 ordinance that gave birth to the commission, fresh legislation annulling or overwriting the earlier one is required to constitutionally devolve it. The federal government is currently in the process of formulating such legislation. If the court is moved to challenge the devolution of HEC under the new legislation (something that can be smelled beforehand), it will be a clear indication of disregard for the writ of the democratic government. Hopefully, we’ll be spared from witnessing such a moment.

An equally dark side to the case against HEC’s devolution is the connection between the establishment and the commission. In his blog ‘The (not so) long arm of the HEC,’ Syed Nadir El Edroos boldly unveiled the role of ex-military officials in HEC-recognized institutions of post-graduate learning and the commission’s meaningful silence over the excess of the said officials. The line “retired army officers granting themselves PhDs at NUML” said it all. Remembering that the military establishment has toppled democratic governments and imposed dictatorships repeatedly in the history of this still-young country, and that the HEC itself is the guarded child of a military dictator, the devolution of the commission signifies the peeling of dictatorial remnants through democratic cleansing.

So what’s in it for the nation?

The Higher Education Commission at its time of creation was the result of an act of the ruling government – a lawful act meant to take the country’s education a level higher. It is entirely debatable whether the commission has been a success story or a disaster for the country’s education and economy. But, it is pretty clear that a publicly elected democracy is entitled to make decisions in the interest of the nation. If a government body can be formed for a good purpose, the same entity can also be devolved, or just plainly dissolved, for the same. And, inviting a political conflict over a non-political issue speaks more about the anxiety of the stakeholders rather than the need of the hour.

At this time in our existence as a nation, the prime necessity is protecting the mandate of 170 million people of this country. To Mr Rahman’s kind attention, therefore, I suggest that it’s time to save our democracy, not an entity that comes far below a democratic state.

Karim Khan

Karim Khan

A freelance writer, blogger, and editor, based in Peshawar. He, more commonly, writes under his pen name Ernest Dempsey

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.