Riazul Haq sat down with HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri to discuss the challenges and the change we should expect in the higher education sector in the near future home in mind and got selected in April 2018 as the fourth chairperson of the HEC after Dr Attaur Rehman, Dr Javed Laghari and Dr Mukhtar Ahmed. Banuri knows what he is doing and that which needs to be done; and the arrival of new government has only added to his energy and vigor. The chairperson is mainly focusing on making things right that have been ignored long enough to go wrong. His area of particular interest include the booming and oft unregulated private sector institutions, violations of the law
HEC has made a job portal for unemployed PhDs and besides there will be portal for all the academic jobs in Pakistan very soon
stakeholders in the sector, improving the quality of research and make the higher education sector competitive in the face of modern demands and challenges. “One of the urgent problems I had to address (right after my arrival) was that a number of universities had violated the standards set by HEC. None of the standards are difficult or impossible for universities to meet,” Banuri said. Explaining the issue, he said there were certain measures, for example the number of classrooms a university has. “If it’s a technical subject (we need to ensure that) you should have the laboratories, you have to have to have a library and some space as well. These are minimum measures to meet. And if somebody says they cannot meet these requirements they should not be in the business of education,” the HEC chairman maintained.
Banuri said nobody would get an NOC prior to starting students’enrollment because “nothing should be done in anticipation as education is a serious business” .He said he did not expect Pakistani institutions to become Oxford and Cambridge overnight, but the first step was to begin meeting the required standards.
Shedding light on the research culture in Pakistan, Banauri said HEC had been doling out funds to conduct research for 15 years, but it never questioned what the institutions were up to in those researches. “When I asked them as to what have we achieved so far, the answers were hardly satisfactory. However, at the same time,there are many institutions in Pakistan that are involved in good research.”
The HEC chairman was of the view that there was no yardstick to measure the quality of research in the country at the moment, except that whether it was published in local or international research journal(s). Commenting on the research practice, he said HEC would be changing the funding criteria for research. “We are working on various aspects for improvement, like areas of emerging challenges and channelizing money to research in areas like water, energy and environment. Then we will be looking to create a system to take the desired results from such research,”Banuri explained. The HEC chief said he was also focusing on the global trend of going GLOBAL– global perspective for local issues. “HEC wants to create a local research fund so that we can specifically work on the local issues. For example a varsity in Dera Ghazi Khan should help the locals of that area on issues of water usage, agriculture, sewerage floods etc. An announcement will be made soon about the fund, with the major aim that such backward areas can compete with others with this incentive system.” “Secondly, a support system would also be established with research center(s) to guide how to do qualitative research and motivate people for conducting more meaningful research,”Banurisaid.
Since assuming the charge, Dr Banuri has been quite vocal about giving autonomy to universities. “It would not be a one-off step but a gradual process – a pathway towards autonomy.I talked to vice chancellors about the way forward. We discussed milestones and then following their performance to give them gradual autonomy in compliance with the set standards.” “A review and inspection system will follow if a new program or project is launched in that particular university to keep tabs for next level approval,” he explained. Banuri added that autonomy would be given to universities already having excellent credentials in public sector and the same would be withdrawn if the performance became poor. “I think that is a responsible way of moving towards autonomy. Hopefully within a month or so we will move down this path. Five varsities and other institutions will be given autonomy if they meet all the requirements,” Banuri said.
Amidst the recent concerns being voiced about devolution and 18th Amendment, the role of HEC has also come into question. Should it still remain relevant or should provinces be allowed to take leading role in managing higher education? The chairperson has a clear view on the issue and seems to back HEC’s long-term existence. “For regularity purposes, capacity building, and financing a federal body is present and that is HEC. It is an equitable way of running a system that is also representative of every province and backward areas. HEC has a governing body of 18 members and representatives of four provinces. All the decisions are taken in agreement with the federal as well as provincial governments.” “I have met HEC Sindh chief Dr Asim and Punjab HEC’s former chairman Dr Nizamuddin. We have agreed that issues would be resolved amicably and federal HEC would be strengthened,” Banuri said He said provincial governments were completely within their limits if they wanted to do something additional for the higher education in their area. Although he did offer a warning. “The claim that we can live like islands after the 18th Amendment will never be true because it is a matter of our children’s future.” PHDS HEC has been facing serious challenges in roping in fresh PhD scholars it funds in and outside the country. Currently over 400 scholars abroad have not returned to Pakistan and owe millions of rupees against the amount they availed during their degree programmes. Banuri has a different view about treating such “absconding scholars” and says instead of hounding them with letters of fines and compliance, the outstanding payments should be converted into loan(s). “We spent money on you and you owe service to the country, if not then sponsor someone back home instead of paying that amount in one go,” the HEC chairman maintained. Currently, any scholar who graduates through HEC scholarship has to return to the country and spend five years of service in Pakistan. However, absconding the scholar shave to pay about 25% fine of the amount spent as per the surety bonds signed by him/her and per rules of procedure. “I want to rationalize it.We do not want to bother them to leave their jobs and return home to serve the five years, but they have to support someone who can study abroad from
Currently over 400 scholars abroad have not returned to Pakistan and owe fine of millions of rupees
Pakistan,”the HEC chairman added. While some have absconded abroad, others in Pakistan have been criticizing HEC for not ensuring jobs to PhD scholars at public universities. Under the program Interim Placement for Fresh PhDs (IPFP), the HEC appoints PhDs in different universities for a year, besides paying their salaries and then eventually the universities hire them permanently; on paper at least. However, many PhDs have still been protesting after one year that they are not getting employed. Banuri said HEC had made a job portal for such PhDs. Besides there would a portal for all academic jobs in Pakistan very soon. “Apart from that, we will remove all obstacles in way of their recruitment, including capacity building through workshops and get the issue resolved at the earliest,” Banuri added. “Punjab Information Technology Board is working on the portal and we will make it functional hopefully within a month,” he said.
Recently, HEC was rocked by high profile cases of plagiarism involving two of its former chairpersons, executive director and a senior official. Though the validity of accusations is up for debate, it nonetheless made HEC a laughing stock. Tired of the mudslinging, the chairman wants a new method of investigating high profile cases in the future.He, however, has a different view about the cases of past. “About 50% of the existing faculty in the country has not been through the system of plagiarism policy which came into being in 2000. The new generation knows this about this epidemic.They know that plagiarism is a crime and work must be done to avoid it.” He envisions that by 2035, everyone will come from a “whole new system”. “I am not worried about the top management (which is ruling the roost) but the new generation which will be taking charge in future,” he said. Banuri plans to setup a committee to investigate cases of plagiarism to avoid biased outcomes, as was the case in the past. “The committee will have a proper structure and it will be activated at the university level,”he added. Chairman Banuri has four years to work on his goals.Only time will tell how he fares in overcoming problems and achieving the feats that he is aiming for. Riazul Haq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at riazulhaq86@gamil. com and on twitter @riazhaq.