Riazul Haq

In what appears to be a clear case of an embarrassing rebuttal, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has replied to HEC founding chairman Dr Attaur Rehman in a somewhat rude and discourteous manner in response to a letter he recently sent to the prime minister about the closure of some programmes.

Rehman, one of the most well-known scientists in Pakistan, is currently the chairperson of Prime Minister’s taskforce on Science and Technology and wrote to the premier on March 25.

In the letter, Dr Atta stated that of the six programmes initiated during his tenure as HEC chairman, two had been closed, three halted and one had been ‘drastically reduced’.

He also pinpointed the ‘cumbersome’ verification system for registration of HEC verified supervisor, highlighting several glitches in the current management that needed to be looked into.

The programmes that have been closed included startup research grants for fresh PhDs and grants for repair and maintenance of scientific equipment. Those halted included access to scientific instrumentation programme, research travel grant for university faculty and scholars and grants to organise seminars, training workshops and conferences. The one ‘drastically reduced’ programme included the faculty development programme.

Dr Atta requested the PM to constitute a committee under his leadership to resolve the issue, including HEC Chairperson Tariq Banuri, to tackle the pressing concerns.

The letter prompted the PM’s Office to take action. The office wrote to the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training to take up the issue, as it was the line ministry of HEC which routed summaries and projects through it.

However, the letter did not go well with HEC, especially Banuri, who is not an avid admirer of the former chairperson and has called his ideas ‘archaic and outdated’.

Firstly, the HEC hesitated to give any comment on the letter, but later it submitted a scathing reply, apparently in the language that Banuri used, and distributed the same in the Vice Chancellor Committee meeting held on Monday.

“Leaving aside that this is an egregious example of attempted political interference in the functioning of an autonomous organization, the statements in the letter are completely false and without any foundation, none of the programmes have been stopped and the financial allocation in the current year for almost all of them is at record level,” the HEC stated in one of the agenda points and its working paper.

The paper said the funding had doubled or increased for the proposed projects, rejecting the notion that the programmes had been stopped or halted.

Further upping the ante, the paper said the programme in question set up during Dr Attaur Rehman’s tenure was “extremely poorly designed”.

“Until this year, no review has been conducted as to their impact, transparency, or equity. To give just one example, the vast majority of the research travel grants were provided over the decade to Islamabad-based universities, especially those that were headed by individuals close to the past HEC leadership,” it alleged.

Further shedding light on the projects, it said that out of 4,475 grants awarded since 2013, 543 just went to Islamabad-based universities namely, COMSATS, NUST, Bahria University, QAU and IIUI.

The HEC rejected Dr Atta’s claim and termed the programmes poorly managed without proper scrutiny, transparency and quality.

When contacted, Dr Atta lamented over the reply by HEC and said the letter was sent for the benefit of the higher education sector.

“I was trying to take additional funds for HEC in a positive way and have supported this sector. I am very sad the way my letter was replied to (by HEC)”, adding that he took the initiative after VCs of several universities approached him to resolve the issue.

When asked if he will take up the issue with the PM, he said he would not as he was not there to fight but was working for the rights of the higher education sector.

According to sources, the HEC chief termed the letter by Dr Atta as an unwise decision and an attack on the autonomy of the higher education sector during the VCs’ meeting on Monday.

“He should have come to me instead of writing a letter to the PM, such issues are within the family but taking it out… (in public is unacceptable),” the HEC chairman was quoted as having said.

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