By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal

One of the greatest farces played out during Musharraf’s dictatorship was that of higher education. Soon after his coup, Musharraf endowed the Higher Education Commission with powers which were similar to his own dictatorial powers in another realm. HEC became his darling not because he knew anything about higher education, science and technology, but simply because the man who invented that farce had a sweet tongue and Musharraf needed to cultivate an image which would soften the image of a tough military dictator. A military dictator interested in higher education was a much softer image and the farce went on at high speed with literally billions of rupees available to it.

HEC was a farce because it was premised on quick-fix solutions to the complex problem of higher education in a country where even the “lower” education is in shambles. It was also a farce because it reduced all “higher education” to science and technology, throwing out the windows all things creative and higher than what our low-level technicians do in laboratories in the name of science. Even the chronic national disasters stemming from lack of urban planning, poor transport systems, lack of architects who could design environmentally friendly and energy efficient buildings and the like were thrown out the window in favor of ill-conceived, fast-track schemes which were supposed to mass produce PhDs. The greatest irony of this farce was that it was like an attempt to construct a building without a foundation or the fifteenth floor of a tower without the first fourteen.

The fundamental problem with HEC was the ill-conceived notion that higher education means science and technology, and science and technology can be jumpstarted by quickly sending out young men and women to foreign countries for training and by importing certain trainers to the country ruled the entire enterprise. Once higher education was reduced to science and technology, it was easy start the bandwagon of research, which was, in turn, thought of as a paper churning factory.

Thus, in quick succession, the nation started to hear the grand news about how Pakistan was rising up in the community of nations in the production of scientific papers. Since it is easy to churn out utterly meaningless papers in chemistry, especially in the field of natural products, the graph really seemed to start rising because papers were being weighed rather than examined for their content.

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In reality, the powers given to HEC destroyed all other academic institutions in the country. Everything became focused on one institution and that institution was run by one man. The new heroes of fast-track publication venture simply shoved aside old professors who had spent a lifetime developing serious research in their respective fields. Not that there were too many of these, but whoever was in that lane, was simply smashed out of the way in the age of quick-fix solutions. Just as Musharraf was all wisdom in the political realm, so was the head of HEC the epitome of wisdom in the field of higher education without having a degree in education or any related field.

The high-profile drama in the form of HEC simply ignored all voices against the ill-conceived plans. Imported “scholars” placed in Pakistani universities at international salaries damaged the entire educational structure of the country. These blue-eyed boys were literally given red carpet royal treatment and the old salaried staff was so discouraged by these imports that they lost whatever little zeal they had. Since anything other than science was considered irrelevant and unnecessary, the country was systematic brought to a situation where it has lost whatever little creativity and intellectual energy it had.

For all practical purposes, 99% problems of Pakistan requiring any scientific and technological solutions require no scientific research; the scientific research on them is already available in open-source literature. The 1% that requires indigenous research (especially in the field of defense) needs technicians and technologists, not scientists. The few men who conceived the notion of higher education on-the-fly had no understanding of national needs or how what education is all about; they were simply quick-fixers who joined the dictator’s bandwagon.

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Since it was a high-profile farce, it required constant media attention and constant juggling of numbers. Since it served the international donors to support this farce, money was made available for programs which served their interests. Thus, the self-serving number game claims, in poor English: “The deplorable state of higher education in Pakistan from 1947 to 2002 is reflected from the total number of PhDs produced by all our universities-3,321. In the subsequent 9-year period, from 2003 to 2011, a remarkable 4,000 PhDs were produced.” But when one asks the next logical question: what have these new PhDs done to take the country out of its serious energy deficit, repeated crop failures, or any of the other areas where scientific and technological solutions are urgently needed, there is absolutely no response. And if one looks into the actual status of these men and women who have been equipped with a PhD degree through this fast track scheme, one is dismayed to find that a very large majority of them have no professional future in Pakistan. Why were they sent out to get these degrees which serve no purpose?

You scratch my back and I will scratch your back–this seems to be the motto behind the publicity racket that went along with the HEC farce: a Senate Committee on Higher Education, Science & Technology declared 2003-2008 as “the golden period for higher education in Pakistan”. A look at the composition of this committee and the expertise of its members in the field of education will be revealing. Millions of rupees were spent in “revolutionizing libraries” so that there is “free access to 25,000 international journals and 60,000 books through the HEC digital library programme.” True, there are a few hundred professional journals in specific fields which need online subscription, but hundreds of journals for which HEC paid are already available in open sources on the internet!

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HEC Pakistan was a farce played out during the dictatorship of a man for whom rules and laws meant nothing. He was not answerable to anyone. He pushed Pakistan into a quagmire from which it has yet to come out. And one of the longer term damages of his dictatorial rule was the damage caused by HEC super structure which, at its height, sucked some six billion rupees annually into a vortex which served certain egos but nothing more.