After extensive research, consultation and deliberation, the Task Force on the Improvement of higher education made some fundamental and radical recommendations for the higher education reform. Most importantly, it rightly concluded that the goal of reforming higher education can be best achieved by upgrading and academically strengthening higher education institutions. It further recognised that universities will need technical and other support to reform and raise their academic quality.
The HEC, established in 2002, has made some useful contributions to higher education. However, overall its performance in terms of improvement in the quality of higher education has been underwhelming, with performance of our universities being lacklustre and the overall quality of the graduates being poor.
From the outset the dictatorial, all-knowing attitude towards the universities was a warning signs that the HEC has morphed into a typical Pakistani public-sector bureaucratic institution, with many of their unfortunate characteristics. Its functioning is characterised by unilateralism and regulation. It initiates change/s and implements them without any meaningful consultation with stakeholders and almost exclusively through diktat. Consequently, the autonomy and institutional strength of universities has been eroding and self-initiated internal reform is now close to non-existent in any university.
The HEC needs to be a resource that fosters and facilitates the strengthening of universities, and not just a regulatory authority. An absolutely necessary first step would be a paradigm shift in the power-relationship/s between the HEC and universities, as well as between the federal HEC and provincial HECs. It needs to move away from regulation and towards reforms primarily through cooperative partnerships. Universities can only be strengthened when with the support and cooperation of the HEC they themselves initiate and take forward a process of ongoing reform, systemic institutional development and self-regulation.
The federal one seems to have adopted an adversarial stance towards provincial ones and is engaged in some unnecessary battles. Given the 18th Amendment and the ever-increasing number of universities in each province, provincial HECs are the need of the hour. The federal HEC can contribute to the establishment and functioning of the provincial ones such that they can reform higher education in their provinces. That can be achieved by the federal HEC engaging with the provincial ones to agree on defining strategic and operational boundaries, ensure dovetailing of work and develop synergies through sharing of resources and mutual learning.
Besides the aforesaid, the strategic priorities, institutional systems and modes of operation of the HEC also need to be revamped and streamlined, so that it can achieve its purposes in a more efficient, purpose-oriented and cost-effective manner.
The key performance indicator of a university, and by that token the federal HEC and provincial HECs, is improvement in the quality of the university graduates. The goal is that our universities produce graduates who have well-rounded knowledge, well-developed critical thinking abilities, an evidence-based habit of mind, the attitude and habit of lifelong learning, well-developed civic sense and citizenship qualities and the requisite knowledge and skills to contribute to economic, social and human development. Such a cohort of graduates will bring huge tangible academic, economic and social benefits, and a host of intangible benefits.
Our higher education system, universities and indeed the HEC itself are bedevilled by numerous complex problems and difficult challenges at the policy, systems and operational levels. These challenges can only be addressed with a re-envisioned and functionally improved HEC, which can in turn take forward a process whereby the provincial HECs, universities and the academic community themselves become champions and practitioners of higher education reform and transformation.