Some method to appoint a VC?

Dr Naazir Mahmood
Friday, May 17, 2024

In Pakistan, it appears that nothing ever really gets settled about education. Be it the appointments of vice-chancellors (VCs) and pro-vice chancellors for public-sector universities, or the composition of ‘search committees’ for selecting candidates, or the representation of students and teachers in decision-making bodies at schools, colleges, and universities, or the development of curriculum, printing of textbooks, and even how exams are held – all appear to be in a constant flux.

Recently, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court received confirmed details about 66 public-sector higher-education institutions (HEIs) in the country that either have no vice-chancellor or no rector with full powers to run their institutions. Out of a total of 154 public-sector HEIs, if 66 have ad-hoc arrangements, one can imagine the level of frustration that both students and teachers must be enduring for months. The situation is alarming to say the least, but those responsible for such appointments are hardly concerned. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has now placed the report before a Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa-led bench in the Supreme Court.

The bench took up a petition moved by a group of teachers who highlighted that a high proportion of universities – all in the public sector – were functioning without legally appointed rectors or VCs. The All-Public Universities BPS Teachers Association (APUBTA) moved the plea through its president Dr Samiur Rahman. That a teachers’ body had to approach the Supreme Court itself tells a lot about the seriousness with which the federal and provincial governments treat higher education in their respective domains. Had it not been for Dr Samiur Rahman’s initiative, perhaps the issue would have remained under the carpet and nobody would have known for sure how many universities are under ad-hoc administration.

Per the HEC report, in Punjab as many as 29 out of 49 HEIs have been working on an acting-charge basis. This means that ‘the competent authority’ has asked another officer – such as a dean or a professor – to act as the head of institution on a temporary basis, pending the appointment of a full-time or permanent rector or VC. Such appointments linger on for months and in some cases even for more than a year. An acting VC has limited powers, but we have seen on multiple occasions that – just like caretaker governments – they overstep their legal authority and make appointments and take decisions they should not be doing.

If in Punjab nearly 60 per cent universities do not have regular VCs, the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is nearly the same with 16 out of a total 32 HEIs having VCs with acting charge. Only 10 VCs in KP are working on a regular basis, whereas the remaining half a dozen universities have this key position vacant. Balochistan has a total of ten universities out of which only five have regular VCs and the remaining are running on an ad-hoc basis. By far, Sindh is performing much better as it has 24 of total 29 universities with regular VCs while only five remaining universities have acting VCs.

Under the federal government, there are 29 HEIs across the country, of which 24 had VCs working on a regular basis. The SC has now ordered the respective governments to fill the vacant posts of rectors and VCs at the earliest. The CJP has also expressed his regret at how “every fabric of society was in decline” and how some elements claimed “they were serving the cause of Islam by destroying schools while the government negotiates with such elements by engaging with them”. These observations by the court are pertinent and worth consideration but the malaise is much deeper.

Having observed the education sector in Pakistan for over thirty years now, one cannot recall any other time when such a large number of universities were functioning without regular rectors or VCs. It would not be out of place to pinpoint that the mess started under General Pervez Musharraf and his handpicked teams of ‘technocrats’ who sacrificed school and college education at the altar of higher education that revolved around ‘producing PhDs’, publishing dubious ‘research’ papers, opening new ‘universities’ that otherwise would not even pass for a decent college imparting quality education.

The erstwhile University Grants Commission (UGC) had many problems but not everything practised previously was bad or needed abolition. The good old practice of sending three to five names of senior deans or professors to the chancellor for appointment as VC was good enough. At least it avoided the rigmarole of ‘search committees’ that have miserably failed in performing their duties.

First, the composition of search committees is highly questionable. In most cases, the search committee comprises individuals with less than an impeccable record. Hardly any search committee member is more qualified or experienced than the senior-most deans or professors.

Committee formation itself becomes a controversial issue and their terms of reference are mostly opaque. The process of inviting applications from senior deans and professors, asking them to submit various documents, then lining them up for interviews, makes them feel inferior and amounts to a certain humiliation that has become a characteristic feature of this procedure.

Behind-the-scene intrigues have become a regular element while some really decent professors keep themselves aloof from this unenviable competition. The process goes on for months and then the ‘competent authority’ may scrap the entire exercise and ask for more names or form a new committee.

Since there are over 150 public universities and nearly half of them are looking for new VCs, it is not uncommon for some professors to constantly keep applying for universities across Pakistan. Some are spending more time in applying and appearing for interviews, than teaching and performing their primary duties. Some indulge in contacting people in positions of power for a favourable reference to the search committee or to the ‘competent authority’. Then even if three names are final, they have to go through a rigorous ‘security clearance’ involving multiple agencies where a grade 17 or 18 officer interviews a candidate for a grade 22 position.

Despite doing all this, in the past quarter of a century our universities have not performed any better than they did in the 20th century. To solve this perennial problem of appointing VCs, perhaps a rethinking is the best option with restoring the old system for the sake of quick decision-making. If a senior professor is good enough to be dean of a faculty or be a pro-VC, there is no reason to doubt his or her capacity to work as a VC.

If a dean or pro-vice-chancellor is a patriot and reliable enough to serve a university for say 25 years, he or she must be so for the position of a VC, which anyway does not deal with any state secrets. Perhaps the best option for the chancellor – be it governor or chief minister – is to ask for 3-5 names of the senior-most faculty deans or pro-VCs from the same university, and appoint the best candidate after consultation with the chairperson of the provincial higher education commission which should play a more proactive role without relying on a search committee and wasting months on application scrutiny, interviews, and ‘research paper’ verifications.

There is no guarantee that abolishing the search committee would lead to the selection of better VCs, but at least it would reduce the time wasted in selecting equally competent or incompetent VCs that we have witnessed in the past couple of decades. All VCs must be accountable to the senate and syndicate of their university which must have representation from student and teacher associations or unions.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: