Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How HEC and PEC Policies Fuel Extremism

How HEC's Policies Fuel Extremism

[Written in May-June 2017]
This is with reference to news item “COASto address VCs on preventing extremism”. This meeting was called to discuss shocking incidents in which university students have been found to be involved in taking law in their own hands, killing others and taking part in heinous terrorist acts. These include among others some very high profile cases such as the mob of students killing a student of Mardan University [1], Safoora Goth Massacre involving students of IBA, KU and SSUET [2], and the medical university student caught just before blowing herself up as a suicide bomber [3]. 

HEC role may have been of importance during the early 2000s. However, over the last decade its continuous drive to increase its regulatory powers seems to have outrun its utility. This paper analyzes five major areas in which HEC’s "excessive" regulation has contributed to the fueling of extremism through a destabilization of the universities by: (i) Encroaching on the autonomy of universities and wresting the authority available to them in their charters, (ii) bloated bureaucratic structure that can respond to the societal demands, (iii) forcing the academic departments to become narrow minded and with silos mentality, (iv) creating of a mad race among the universities to increase the “quantity” instead of focusing on “quality”, (v) elevating PhD degrees to become the primary indicator of teaching quality, and discouraging the value of experience and multidisciplinary background. This paper argues that HEC’s excessive regulation in these four areas have compelled the universities to shift their focus from their mission to contribute to the development of society and instead focus on parameters whose relevance to the society is suspect, which has now resulted in the growth of extremism on the campuses. 

1. Encroachment on the Autonomy of Universities

Since its inception, HEC has continued to encroach on the autonomy of the universities and has now nearly taken away the powers awarded to the universities by their charters under the act of the assemblies. These include power to award degrees, power to design curriculum and courses, power to create degree programs, power to hire passionate teachers, and power to define a conducive environment for learning. HEC has forced the universities to take their eyes of their core functions and have instead busied their management in filling hundreds of forms every year and trying to follow directives now being received on a weekly basis from so many departments of HEC and in addition from 14+ accreditation bodies; each one trying to act like an SHO, and asking for the same information again and again.

Erosion of Statutory Powers of University

The erosion of statutory power of universities to award degree can be seen on any given day in front of HEC's offices around the country, where hundreds of students are lined up since early morning to get their degrees attested despite paying thousands of rupees in fees,  and running from pillar to post to get the frivolous bureaucratic objections rectified regarding their degrees awarded years before the inception of HEC itself. HEC's accreditation bodies and PEC have now arrogated the powers of universities to decide about how much intake to take, when to admit the students and who to admit. HEC is dictating how many courses the students should take, what courses a students should take and when to take the courses by holding the attestation of the degrees. HEC has even taken away the statutory powers of Academic Council to decide about the degree programs to offer. Routinely, junior officers of HEC’s departments are overruling the decisions of the statutory bodies of universities such as academic councils, board of studies and BASRs in deciding about the choice of programs and their contents. 

2. Bloated Bureaucratic Structure of HEC

This concentration of power at the center has turned the Federal HEC in to a huge bureaucratic organization that can no longer respond quickly to the changing social requirements of the catchment areas of around 200 public and private universities which are spread over in cities all around the country. The organization has become so big that its divisions are often working at cross-purposes as explained below in the context of quality vs quantity ranking. The rise in extremism in universities is the evidence that Federal HEC's attempt to develop one-size-fit-all policies for all the universities has back fired and is no longer feasible. The fact that army chief has to call all the universities to advise them about the menace of extremism is a reflection of the disconnect of HEC's and its ability to centrally direct all the universities. There is now need to let the universities devise their own policies for managing the aspirations and feelings of the students and respond promptly to any of their concerns rather than looking to the center for such things. In this fast moving world of social media opinions, a university's response has to be quick and nimble to the issues arising in its catchment areas which can vary widely from city to city and across cultures. This is why the charters of universities provided for the autonomy of the university to design degree programs and systems according to their own missions and visions through their statutory bodies. Too much of the centralization has eroded the ability of the universities to quickly manage the issues arising on their campuses.

Need for Decentralization

The problem of extremism needs to be squarely put on the shoulders of Federal HEC because it has now arrogated to itself most of the statutory functions of the universities and given the fact that Federal HEC has been a recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars of USAID and other foreign loans and billions of rupees of federal funding which has been increasing continuously for the last 15+ years. Last year budget was around Rs 100 billion and was not shared with provincial HECs according to any NFC award.

After the 18th amendment education has become a provincial subject, and the Supreme Court only allowed HEC to continue till provincial HECs are properly established. However, Federal HEC has made no effort to meet the spirit of constitution for strengthening and supporting provincial HECs.

The Federal HEC can no longer respond quickly to the requirements and the aspirations of the populace of a big country like Pakistan. Educational policies be regulated by provincial HECs and universities should be given back their statutory powers that were awarded to them by their respective charters as per the relevant acts passed by the provincial and national assemblies. Universities can then be held responsible and would also be in a better position to make quick decisions by monitoring the pulse of the populace in their proximity. 

3. Sacrificing "Quality" at the altar of "Quantity" 

Federal HEC is now such a huge body that its different divisions are often working at cross purposes. For example, quality ranking criteria of Federal HEC has been developed and measured by QA division. This is a one-size-fit-all criteria which stands in a stark contrast to the QAA division's QEC quality criteria which envisions universities to develop curriculum, policies and systems according to their particular vision and mission. Need for a centralized criteria managed by a Federal body is an obsolete concept which is not subscribed by any of the world famous accreditation councils which is the correct approach followed by the QEC.  Whereas QEC criteria envisions an agriculture university's curriculum and processes to reflect the requirements of agriculture sector as enshrined in its vision and mission, and the textile university to have its own curriculum and processes that reflect the requirements of textile sector as enshrined in its vision and mission, etc. In contrast, one-size-fit-all ranking criteria issued by the QA division envisages that the quality criteria for a university in Mardan which is in the tobacco heart land of Pakistan should be exactly the same for a university in Karachi situated in the trading hub of Pakistan, and which in turn should be the same for a university in Faisalabad situated in the textile heartland, is a ridiculous expectation.

Universities are now focused on increasing their rankings on criteria which is purely quantitative in nature but has been sold as a “qualitative” ranking. Neither the criteria nor any thing being measured by it is "qualitative" in nature. The criteria is too much focus on inputs, resources, and counts of journals, counts of awards, counts of papers etc. It finds little or no mention to the contribution to the society, character building, and societal relevance. It tries to count national and internal awards that are based more on connection in the right quarters than with any real contribution. Much has been written about the faculty rankings and their yearly announcements in the papers and their references are given below. These rankings clearly indicate that the goal-post has been moved to accommodate certain quotas and quarters. The focus on the quantitative measures and mostly inputs has forced the universities to take their eyes of their mission of development of ethical and intellectual graduates who can be asset to the society and industry.

Ranking criteria has been criticized at several forums. Even the HEC's current and previous higher management mentions this again and again in their public speeches that they want this work to be done by a third party. Yet this ranking continues to be published during the reins of every chairman of the HEC. HEC should not be allowed to conduct rankings because there is a conflict of interest between HEC as a funding agency and its ranking of the universities that itself is funding and hence is partial to the universities that are funded by it versus those not funded by it.

This ranking has forced the universities to spend their energies in increasing their numbers on the 60+ criteria elements. In this effort their energies and their focus has shifted from the realizing their visions and missions to a single minded pursuit to increase the counts. The criteria being HEC grants and funding focused has moved the universities away from their mission to be relevant to the society, industry, teaching and even their students. Most of the administrative staff is busy collecting and tabulating these numbers and little effort goes into ensuring the quality of learning of students, quality of teaching, quality of their suitability to industry and society.

It is this shift in focus that has made the campus vulnerable to influences of extremism. As mentioned  below the teachers and the departments that keep the pulse of the students and interact with them intellectually have been rendered ineffective with this rise of extremist influences.

4. Creation of Silo Mentality and Discouragement of Inter-Disciplinary Focus

HEC's policies have created a silo mentality where each department is now jealously guarding its territory, not allowing faculty of other departments to enter its domain. They also want to restrict the breadth of degrees by focusing on too narrow domains. Multidisciplinary programs are being discouraged by asking for specific degrees with that multi-disciplinary focus instead of asking for multidisciplinary experience or multiple degrees from different disciplines. This is creating tunnel vision where teachers and students only get to meet and learn from people from a narrow focused area. They get minimum opportunity to broaden their minds through inter-disciplinary courses and courses spanning areas which develop rational thinking, equanimity, tolerance and appreciation of other cultures and disciplines.

Narrow Unidirectional Departmental Focus

For example, engineering curricula guidelines have hardly a space of 3 liberal arts courses out of 40+ courses in a four year program. A greater percentage of liberal arts courses can help broaden the minds of the students with arts, philosophy, history, psychology, culture, religion and sociology. Furthermore, PEC and HEC's accreditation bodies criteria is such that they want faculty members trained and educated into very narrow departmental focus. They either refuse to count or just discount the faculty appointments from the social sciences and liberal arts areas. The accreditation bodies jealously guard their narrow specialization domain to such an extent that they do not allow more than a couple of faculty members to be counted from out of their domains.

Fresh PhDs with little or no Experience

Increasing the count of PhDs as the primary focus of HEC has only increased this narrow focus of the departments and the faculty. PhDs especially the new ones initially have a very narrow focus. They cannot interact with the students on broader issues of politics, environment and economy. Students are in a stage of their lives where they are seeking to find meaning of their lives which can only come through liberal arts courses exploring religion, philosophy, psychology, politics, international relations etc. The excessive emphasis on research publications, non-recognition of general papers in magazines and newspapers have further distanced the faculty from the demands of the society. Many seem to be living in the world of IFJs and are neither available for counseling nor are inspiring enough to cater to their broader questions about purpose of life, country and their existence in the globalized world. The departments are now filled with newly crowned PhDs who have no industry experience and lack sufficient experience of life. These young 20+ year PhDs can hardly be inspiring mentors and guides to the energetic youth who are in the phase of their lives where they get moved easily and are willing to be reckless and have a tendency to take risks and even indulge in unreasonable and unjustifiable actions.

5. Teaching Quality measured in terms of PhD Degrees vs Experience of Industry and Exposure of Society

Faculty hiring criteria mandated by the HEC has robbed the universities of faculty members who could undertake mentoring and counseling through their experience of industry and society.

According to HEC quality of teaching depends upon the number of PhDs, the number of PhDs produced, number of research students, and resources like number of PCs or number of books. The silo mentality and narrow departmental focus is further exacerbated by the HEC’s misconception that a PhD degree is a "departmental" degree. It therefore disallows PhDs from other departments to come across and broaden the research topics and cross pollinate other departments. It discourages inter-departmental and inter-disciplinary interaction and cross cultural exchange of ideas. The departments are forced to hire only  the "relevant" PhDs to increase the quality of undergraduate programs.

HEC thinks that PhD is a departmental degree that is focused on a specific discipline. It ignores that PhD is a doctorate of philosophy. It is not a doctor of business or doctor of engineering or doctor of economics, etc. A PhD is only a license to conduct independent research. It ignores that many universities around the world do not even mention the name of the department or even the faculty on the degrees because a PhD is only a license to independently pursue research. A PhD does not automatically qualify a person to become a good teacher. Universities have been forced to jettison good teachers in favor of young PhDs who only have the experience of the university where they have studied. PEC, HEC and other accreditation bodies do not even allow teachers with relevant industry experience to be counted as the faculty in their calculations of faculty-student ratios. Too many faculty members with no industry experience and exposure is further leading to bookish knowledge. Furthermore, too much research focus and too little industry and society exposure is further developing the tunnel visions.

Too much research faculty and too little industry experienced and socially aware multi-disciplinary teachers  have robbed the university of faculty qualified for mentoring and counseling of students.

The criteria for determining relevance of a PhD for a particular discipline is so ridiculous that if the same criteria is used to evaluate the PhDs working for Higher Education Commission, then this would render degrees of nearly all the officials working for HEC, PEC and other accreditation bodies as "irrelevant" because only those with PhD in "Higher Education Management" should then be allowed to become HEC officials, VCs, Deans, Registrars and other administrative posts in higher education.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper analyzes the HEC's role in fueling the extremism on university campuses. It traces the lack of response from university authorities on five reasons: 
  1. HEC has eroded the autonomy of universities and their statutory bodies by arrogating to itself many of the statutory functions. The university's authority as per their charter be restored to enable them to function effectively. 
  2. Bloated bureaucracy of HEC can no longer meet the diverse requirements of the industry and therefore needs to be decentralized and devolved to the provinces. 
  3. Too much emphasis on one-size-fit-all quality ranking criteria which actually is a quantitative criteria has busied the universities in mindless collection of data and has moved their focus away from the actual delivery of real quality whose impact needs to be measured on society and industry, 
  4. HEC's policies have created departmental silos and too narrow definitions of degree programs that have robbed the programs of their multidimensional and multidisciplinary spread and forced them to become too narrow in their focus. 
  5. Too much emphasis on PhD research faculty and too little emphasis on industry experienced, and socially aware multi-disciplinary teachers  have robbed the university of faculty qualified for mentoring and counseling of students. Faculty hiring criteria mandated by the HEC has robbed the universities of faculty members who could undertake mentoring and counseling. 
It is accordingly recommended that: 
  1. Universities should be allowed to exercise their autonomy as per their charter. All bureaucratic  hindrances or need for approvals of HECs should be removed that conflict with the decisions of the statutory bodies of the universities. 
  2. HEC powers needs to be devolved to the provincial HECs as per the 18th amendment. 
  3. HEC should not be allowed to conduct rankings because there is a conflict of interest between the funding agency and its ranking of the universities funded by it. Ranking should be given to third parties who do not have a vested interest. Ranking criteria should move away from counting numbers to quality assessments. 
  4. HEC should not try to define the degrees and departments in to narrow silos. It should encourage multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional and inter-departmental research and teaching.  
  5. PhDs should not be considered as a criteria for quality of teaching. A PhD is only a license to conduct independent research, nothing more. 

References:

[2] Sabeen Mahmud, Safoora Goth killers to be hanged
[3] Why Naureen Leghari's radical transformation should come as no surprise
[4] Debating the devolution of HEC: Flames of the torch lit by federal HEC should be carried to all the provinces
[5] 

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