Will Pakistan’s Higher Education Survive The Banuri-Atta Rift?

Higher Education Commission Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri’s dislike for HEC’s founding chairman Dr Attaur Rahman is no secret anymore. But the two giants being at loggerheads could cost the higher education sector dearly. Riazul Haq reports what is going on.

hen elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers the most. So goes the saying. And that is exactly what is happening to the higher education sector in the ongoing rift between two bigwigs. Current Higher Education Commission (HEC) Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri, and former as well as founding HEC chairman Dr Attaur Rehman appear not to be getting along well. The latter has become quite close to the prime minister after being appointed the chairman of the PM’s taskforce on science and technology, as well as of the task force on technology driven knowledge economy. But Banuri on his part is not letting up. Confident of being connected well to the corridors of power, Banuri is going all out to discredit what Dr Rehman has been doing since assuminig chairmanship of the two task forces.

Dr Attaur Rehman has been appointed chairman of PM’s taskforce technology driven knowledge economy and has obtained funds worth Rs 14 billion for various projects.

Dr Rehman has been on and about his work for quite some time and even managed to obtain development funds worth Rs 14 billion from the government for the new fiscal year for over a dozen projects. When we asked him about Dr Attaur Rahman a few months ago, Banuri had candidly replied that Rahman did not bother him and he had “his own job to do”. But his other comments prove otherwise. The HEC chairman terms Rahman “old-school” and a man with “outdated ideas”. When development projects were being finalized and the HEC chairperson raised objections to the budgetary cuts, a senior official of the Ministry of Planning and Development suggested that if HEC took ownership of the projects under the knowledge economy banner, there could be a 35% increase in the budget. To this, Banuri had replied, “It’s a scam and I don’t want to own it.” He expressed the same comments when he was invited to a TV show right after the budget, where he sat alongside Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry. On June 30th, an article titled ‘Reversing HEC Reforms’ appeared in Daily Dawn. The tone and tenor of the article suggested that it meat to criticize Dr Rahman and his ‘old’ polices. The author is known to be close to Dr Banuri and a former staff member of the Planning Commission.

But perhaps the biggest defeat that Dr Banuri has faced at the hands of Rahman was the prime minister’s decision to dissociate HEC with the Islamabad National University project. The INU project was inaugurated in December 2018 by PM Imran Khan with plans to build a university in the PM’s House. The inauguration of the event cost the exchequer over Rs 30 million and a number of near and dear academics from US, UK and other parts of the world made it to the Islamabad for brainstorming sessions. The HEC burnt midnight oil get the preliminary work done, including preparation of feasibility report, PC-I and tentative charter of the university, which was to first start operations as a centre of excellence and a think-tank for the government.

Banuri believs Dr Rahman’s projects are not well defined or presented. “No professional approval process would have approved any of them.”

But in stepped Dr Rahman and proposed making the INU an engineering university under his much-touted ‘knowledge economy’ project. The proposal left Dr Banuri fuming, as evident from his comments about Dr Rahman on several occasions. Per altered plans for INU, Dr Rahman will chalk out a plan, probably with funding from China, for an engineering university of emerging technologies. The project has been included in the Public Sector Development Project (PSDP) for 2019-2020. The alterations in the plans means HEC gets no piece of the action as far as INU is concerned, while Dr Rahman has made away with 15 other projects approved from the government under the science and technology banner.  Dr Banuri, rejects the projects in totality, calling them “prepared in haste and without due diligence”. Dr Rahman’s projects are not well defined or presented. No professional approval process would have approved any of them,” the HEC chairperson said when asked about the projects.Interestingly, HEC claims it has received a cut of 35% in its development budget compared to the previous year. However, the government terms the 15 projects and Rs 14 billion granted for ‘knowledge economy’ part of the higher education budget, something that Banuri refutes. These projects have been placed under various ministries, including Information Technology and Science and Technology. For its part, HEC received Rs 29 billion in PSDP, and the commission is yet to receive more than a quarter of the amount promised in the previous fiscal year.

Perhaps the biggest defeat Dr Banuri has faced at the hands of Dr Rahman is the prime minister’s decision to dissociate HEC with the Islamabad National University project – the project to build a university in the PM’s House

According to HEC, the development budget for 2018-19 was initially Rs 45 billion. Later the interim government cut it to Rs 35 billion. For 2019-20, the projected demand was Rs 55 billion, but it was cut down to Rs 29 billion – 50 percent less than what was demanded and 20 percent below last year’s allocation. Similarly, HEC claims that the projected demand for recurring budget (after taking into account the salary increases mandated by the government as well as the new universities opened and increased enrolments) was Rs 103.55 billion. In other words, there is a budget cut of around 40 percent.When Academia Magazine contacted Dr Rahman, the academic expressed obliviousness about the INU project and said he would now continue to build an engineering university. Asked about INU, he said he had no idea about that project.  Interestingly, Dr Rehman was among those who were part of the inaugural session of the INU at the PM’s House.Sources in HEC opine that though Dr Banuri is bent on discrediting Dr Rahman and his initiatives, the ultimate loser will be none other than higher education. 

“At a time of budgetary cuts, shrinking foreign investment and flailing academic activities in higher education sector, the two big guns need to sit together and work to uplift the education sector, rather than belittling each other,” an official said on condition of anonymity. In the coming days, we can be certain of witnessing much more tiffs that could prove detrimental for the higher education and related programs. Those in power need to take notice of the tussle and make the two very fine academicians set aside their egos and jointly work for uplifting the higher education sector of Pakistan.