The control freaks that we are, from parents to religious sermonisers, from stiff neck civil and military bureaucrats to ambitious politicians, we want every individual and organisation to be under our thumb
Dr Haider Shah
In the print media reports of a fracas over strategic management in higher education between the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, vice chancellors (VCs) and the teaching staff have been making headlines for quite some time. On account of my association as a student and teacher with four higher education institutions in the UK such stories of wrangling for control are difficult to digest.
Institutions, both divine and secular, reflect the social norms and attitudes of a society. While pondering over pomposity I fly back to the late 1990s when I was pursuing an MBA course as a Chevening scholar. The British Council arranged a visit for all scholarship holders to Cambridge University. Standing in the lawn along with other students who had come from various universities I eagerly awaited the arrival of the then UK government’s commonwealth minister. Suddenly, someone from amongst the guests took the mike and, after introducing himself as the minister wished us all the best and joined us for a group photograph. Astounded by the simplicity of the function I thought of our official functions where the chief guest, as a norm, arrives one hour late and then the rituals of power play follow. First comes a maulvi for talawat (recitation of Quranic verses), then comes a naatkhwan (singing of hymns) and then the senior most officer lauds the graciousness of his majesty the minister for taking out time from his “gonagoon masroofiat” (hectic schedule).
The control freaks that we are, from parents to religious sermonisers, from stiff neck civil and military bureaucrats to ambitious politicians, we want every individual and organisation to be under our thumb. According to reports appearing in the media, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has relentlessly been pursuing changes in the strategic management of the higher education sector by introducing amendments to the Universities Model Act. Teaching faculties are opposing these changes as they do not want that major decision-making shifts from elected bodies to the government. Beggars cannot be choosers. That is perhaps the principle with which the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government views the independence of universities.
From the ideal state of Plato in ancient Athens to the modern welfare state of present day Europe, education plays a pivotal role. The UK’s universities, both ancient and new, are not owned or run by the government but are independent legal entities. While all universities receive some public funding, the government does not manage this money directly but works through a series of independent funding councils. So, even for strategic oversight the government does not use direct funding as a lever of control. An official guide on the UK higher education sector identifies the governance structure of UK universities as a central factor in its record of international success in research, scholarship and education: “UK universities are autonomous and independent institutions with a well-deserved and jealously guarded reputation for intellectual and academic freedom.” From my own personal experience I can state with confidence that strategic and operational level management starts and ends with the VC and the governing body where government is not represented. Unlike Pakistan, there is no umbilical cord between a university and the government. Chancellor is a ceremonial title often bestowed upon someone with a distinguished career. However, the titleholder has no role in the managerial matters of a university.
The previous ANP government, despite many failings, must be credited with giving a growth spurt to higher education in the province by launching new universities. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Universities Model Act, 2012 streamlined the affairs of the sector after extensive deliberations with all stakeholders. While no significant addition or improvement has been witnessed during the two-year tenure of the new Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, it focused its energies on amending the existing two-year-old act. VCs of all public sector universities have expressed their apprehensions over unilateral amendments proposed by the government, which, they believe, are maliciously motivated. The Peshawar University Teachers’ Association (PUTA) has also severely condemned the proposed amendments, threatening nationwide closure of public sector universities if the independence of universities is diluted through amendments by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. The representative bodies of university faculties argue that with the proposed amendments the appointment of VCs would become wholly political, which, in turn, would be catastrophic to the autonomous nature of the higher education sector in the province. If the amendments are scrutinised, this apprehension does not seem to be wholly unjustified as out of proposed amendments the majority focus on appointments, removal and functions of VCs.
There is an emerging chorus even here in the UK about making higher education more accountable by adopting managerialism. But this is not being done by usurping the powers of the universities’ administration by the government. Instead, greater quality assurance requirements have been introduced through the higher education authority. Governments do not poke their long noses to improve seats of learning and scholarship. While writing these lines a story has appeared in the national press, catching my attention. It has been alleged in the story that a young MNA from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government passed three failed papers in a single day after undue pressure was applied. The story may turn out to be untrue but if governments enjoy greater levers of control such instances of misuse of power will become more commonplace. Hence, it is in the interest of all stakeholders that the higher education sector be left fully autonomous and only quality assurance related demands are placed before universities’ top management.