What Next For 25 Universities That Secured Green Light From Parliament?

What Next For 25 Universities That Secured Green Light From Parliament?
In its brief tenure, the ruling rainbow coalition government failed to address issues faced by public sector universities, including rising fees and falling education standards. And as it prepares to exit, it has decided to leave with a parting gift of establishing over two dozen new public sector varsities.

The last session of the 15th National Assembly will be remembered in parliamentary history as the session where 25 bills to establish universities in different cities of Pakistan were approved in one fell swoop. A second swoop saw the establishment of an additional university in Lahore which brewed its independent storm.

These universities have been established in a manner for which several heavyweights currently sitting on the treasury benches used to criticize the previous governments. The difference is that these critics were then sat on the opposition benches.

During their full-throated objection to such a manner of legislation, the erstwhile opposition members used to cry hoarse about how the former government was bypassing the prescribed rules for passing legislation.

These protestations fell silent as bills for establishing over 25 universities were bulldozed through the lower house of Parliament.

Critics pointed out that proposed plans to establish these universities on public money were not shared with the relevant standing committees for discussion, thus breaking with parliamentary tradition.

On this speedy legislation in the education sector, the experts believed that there would be some influential individuals' interest in the establishment of these universities.

In fact, the one government organization that is supposed to be at the centre of establishing new varsities, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), is clueless about the developments.

In fact, the regulator of higher education bodies - both in the public and private space - has often found itself embroiled in debates on the rapid expansion of varsities and the challenges of not only keeping these organizations sufficiently funded but ensuring the quality of education there as well.

READ MORE: Specialists Call For Education Reforms In Punjab

To assist with quality, the HEC has set up a quality assurance unit within the commission to make it a "proactive process" that focuses on planning, documentation and setting quality standards rooted in educational outcomes before any university launches a programme.

Prior to the establishment of the HEC by former dictator General Pervez Musharraf, there was no central regulation nor quality assurance system in place. In fact, each varsity was responsible for ensuring quality in their own university.

What also prompted the need for the HEC was that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, several the demand for higher education in several emerging fields was required, including information technology, Management Sciences and social sciences leading to the mushroom growth of varsities with no quality benchmark.

But thanks to the HEC, today, more than 80 percent of universities now have Quality Enhancement Cells (QECs), though only a handful are believed to be performing in letter and spirit.

Universities in haste

Political experts say that a bevvy of legislation has taken advantage of poor attendance in the last days of the government.

Among the bills passed, legislation for the establishment of universities, including the Metropolitan International Institute of Science and Technology, Federal Ziauddin University, Institute of Management and Technology, University of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Institute of Health and Professionals Studies, Sheikhupura Institute of Advanced Studies, Kasur Institute of Science and Technology and many others, were squeezed through.

The volume of bills passed was so high that the website of the National Assembly has yet to upload these bills for public viewing.

A bill for the Pak-China Gwadar University Lahore was also passed, which has already run into controversy.

READ MORE: Parliament Okays Law To Build Gwadar’s University In Lahore

Education minister clueless

When asked about the establishment of a whole bushel of universities in a single sitting of the lower house of Parliament, Federal Minister for Education Rana Tanvir expressed ignorance.

He argued that when the bills were passed, he was not even in the assembly. He added that had he attended the historic session, he would have surely opposed the move.

The minister, who is ultimately responsible for leading parliamentary oversight on operations of varsities in the country, went on to regret that there were universities in the country that were currently operating out of a single room. And when students graduate from these varsities, they have to run from pillar to post when HEC refuses to attest their degrees.

HEC not consulted

When contacted, HEC Spokesperson Ayesha Ikram said that the commission remains the apex regulator of higher education institutions in the country.

She went on to explain that even if the government approves the charter for varsities or institutions, these organizations cannot commence operations until they obtain a No-objection certificate (NOC) from the HEC.

"NOC of HEC is mandatory, which is issued after affirmative assessment by a committee of HEC," Ikram stated, adding, "It is the prerogative of the National Assembly to pass the bills of education institutions. However, for accreditation purposes, all requirements identified by the HEC must be fulfilled, and academic operations can only be started after acquiring NOC from the HEC."

"No institution will operate, use the name of a university or initiate academic activities without fulfilling all codal formalities and obtaining NoC from HEC," she asserted