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[KARACHI] Academic circles in Pakistan are in turmoil over the ongoing devolution of central government's responsibilities to the provinces, impacting the Higher Education Commission (HEC) that also oversees scientific research in universities.

HEC was set up in 2002 as an apex national body to strengthen higher education and academic research.

In April 2010 Pakistan’s parliament increased autonomy to the provinces, reversing constitutional amendments made under former president, general Pervez Musharraf, to centralise several sectors, including education.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee on the amendment, senator Raza Rabbani, announced HEC’s devolution on 30 March 2011. This was seen as a further setback to the commission after it took a 40 per cent cut in funds in its 2010 budget.

Former science minister and HEC chairman Atta Ur Rahman described the move as a “national disaster”. Rahman said the HEC had revolutionised higher education and academic research in Pakistan, and its devolution would have a “devastating effect” on future generations of students.

Rahman cited the example of  a “600 per cent increase in scientific publications in international journals [from Pakistan] and a 1,000 per cent increase in citations between 2002 and 2008".

"Today, several of our universities are ranked among the top 500 [of the world]," he told SciDev.Net.

HEC chairman Javaid Laghari said the devolution would bring to a halt at least 240 HEC-funded research projects in various universities.

But HEC has also had its share of critics. They include Pakistan’s planning commission that in 2010 slammed the commission’s massive doctoral output as a mere “number game”.  

Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor at the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, had criticised it for misuse of authority, nepotism, and poor quality of scientific publications.

But Hoodbhoy told SciDev.Net that "Although I have been strongly critical of the shenanigans of the former HEC leadership, in my opinion the government is headed in the wrong direction. Instant dismemberment or serious disempowerment of the HEC is a recipe for producing chaos."

After the devolution of HEC to the provinces, "the few checks and balances that currently exist, and which are actually enforced by the HEC, would disappear,” he said.

“Academic decisions would be made by those who have little understanding of how universities should function. This would push the system towards free fall. A wild policy zigzag is the last thing that Pakistan needs.”