Feisal Naqvi

Why the HEC matters

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2012 at 3:27 am

The HEC matters to me – repeat, me – because Sohail Naqvi is my elder brother. However, the papers have already published a paean to his character and I don’t intent to write another one. My job today is to persuade you that the HEC matters even if you don’t give a damn about Sohail Naqvi.

In case you don’t know what’s going on, here’s a quick summary: the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was set up in 2002 as an autonomous, independent body in charge of higher education in Pakistan.  The Federal Government has now decided that it no longer wants HEC to be independent and autonomous. Instead, it has decided that HEC should be run like most other parts of the Federal Government, which is to say under the control of a Federal Secretary who, in turn, reports to a Federal Minister. It has therefore attempted to substitute the current Executive Director of the HEC (Sohail Naqvi) with the gentleman occupying the office of the Secretary, Ministry of Education. Since the ED is the guy who actually runs the HEC on a day to day basis, this means that the Ministry of Education wants to run the HEC.

Let me leave the legalities aside for the courts and jump straight to the more important question: is it a bad idea for the Federal Government to directly run higher education? If so, why?

Let’s begin with the practical answer: (1) with an annual budget of more than Rs. 48 billion, the HEC controls a very large amount of money; and, (2) the current regime features a number of exceptionally sticky-fingered people.  Putting the Federal Government in charge of the HEC is therefore likely to result in the HEC suffering the same bankrupt fate as PIA, the Steel Mills and Pakistan Railways (to name but a few state institutions).

The problem with the practical answer is that it proves too much. In other words, if taken to its logical end, the conclusion is that our elected representatives should not be allowed any fiscal responsibility whatsoever. That conclusion, in turn, is but a short step away from “guided democracy” and other euphemisms for technocractic rule.

The better answer is that every system of government tries to set up a balance between representative democracy and the ability of elected representatives to go crazy in the manner of alcoholics suddenly provided with an open bar-tab. The original safeguards on which our constitutional structure was based have now been destroyed (and, in any event, were not very good). That is why the current democratic regime faces few obstacles in its quest to enrich itself. The entrustment of functions to specialized autonomous institutions (like the HEC) thus represents the best hope we have of mixing democracy with some basic competence in government.

The original scheme of government in Pakistan (as contained in the 1956 and 1962 constitutions) mixed an elected cabinet of ministers with extremely well-paid bureaucrats who had constitutional protection against arbitrary removal. This meant that if and when ministers wanted to go crazy, they would be stopped by the bureaucrats who were protected from arbitrary reprisals (by the then constitutions) and who were paid more than enough to ensure their honesty. That system of protection never made it into the 1973 constitution. Instead, the right of bureaucrats to approach the High Courts was replaced with access to the Federal Service Tribunal. At the same time, the salaries of bureaucrats were deliberately stifled so that over time, the famed mandarins of the CSS became a shadow of themselves.

You may ask then why we don’t simply reintroduce that model and those protections. The answer is that the whole concept of a non-specialist, all-knowing government bureaucrat flitting from post to post, leaving nothing but order and harmony in his wake, is a bad joke. The standard argument in favour of this sort of bureaucracy is the Indian Civil Service, normally thought to have achieved wonders in colonizing India.

The problem with the myth of the ICS is just that: it’s a myth. Yes, the British did some good things in India. However, at the same time, colonial rule was marked by a plethora of lousy decisions (of which the famous Bengal Famine of 1943 is but one example) and sustained economic stagnation. I don’t have the space here to beat that particular horse to death but readers would be well-served by reading William Easterly’s “What Man’s Burden” which does a masterful job of demolishing the “colonialism was all a bed of roses” theory.

The rise of specialized institutions like the HEC – and also like PEMRA, the PTA, NADRA, NEPRA and others – is a deliberate and considered response to this conundrum. It is, in effect, an attempt to revive the ICS of yore via well-paid specialists who have institutional autonomy, reasonable salaries and professional protection. The HEC Ordinance, for example, states that the ED can only be removed for cause (such as proven charges of corruption or inefficiency).  By comparison, the Secretary Education answers on a day to day and minute to minute basis to the Education Minister and can be transferred or made OSD at a moment’s notice.

As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. For every reformer seeking to set up an independent institution, there is a disgruntled representative of the ancient regime trying to ensure that power remains where it has always been. And in this fight, both the bureaucrats and the ministers who normally control them have ample reason to try to ensure that independent institutions are brought to heel.

The current flap over the HEC is therefore not about my brother’s job. Instead, it is but the latest battle in an ongoing fight and the most recent attempt to stifle change.  Ultimately, it’s about a model of governance which offers a realistic hope for progress. The only question is whether that model will be allowed to stay or be gutted like so many other good ideas.

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