The Pakistan report card: Dr Atta-ur-Rehman

Fasi Zaka

When I was a lecturer in a public institution of higher education, the HEC under Dr Ata-ur-Rehman was just beginning to flex its muscles. At the time I had an opportunity to see firsthand the transformative effects of the HEC.

Recently Dr Tariq Rehman wrote an eloquent defence of the HEC and the point that really struck home was his incredulousness at the opportune critics who seems to have jumped out of the woodwork after Musharraf went, not before when it would have been more courageous to voice dissent. Dr Tariq Rehman made reference to Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy who had been a regular and sometimes harsh opponent of the on-goings at the HEC. And I agree with Dr Tariq Rehman’s assessment that the integrity of Dr Hoodbhoy in beyond question generally, and also because he critiqued at a time when the HEC was universally lauded. On a personal note, I always found Dr Hoodbhoy to be a useful counterbalance to the HEC at that time, and really appreciate his recent piece where he did not gloat at the current reassessment of Dr Ata-ur-Rehman.

Between the articles of Dr Tariq Rehman and Dr Hoodbhoy, I feel there is very little that is not covered. But, nonetheless this article serves to highlight one hidden assumption that seems to be held against Dr Ata-ur-Rehman which I do not believe to be true.

Most critics of the HEC have rightly pointed out that Pakistan in the past decade has had a disproportionate emphasis on higher education which does not accrue the same social capital and equity increasing effects that funding into primary and secondary education will yield. That is not something that can be disagreed with. However, the belief that somehow this imbalanced policy is the result of the lobbying for funding by Dr Ata-ur-Rehman is erroneous. The utter lack of direction regarding basic direction cannot be faulted at the hands that helm another sector of education that had a vision, however erroneous it may be.

Before I left the education sector I began to see the reforms taking effect. Some PhD scholars came back, totally transformed by the experience and willing to change the entropy of their departments. The huge databases of academic papers had begun to inform the thesis of those who were doing local PhDs, and at the same time the culture of seeking grants began to take hold. Of course this is not to suggest that there was no waste. I know of one local PhD holder who I doubt would be able to clear his “O-levels’ if put to the test who was awarded the funds to undertake a post-doctoral position. At the same time several seminars of doubtful quality were held, and the utter lack of quality in some local journals has been unchecked. But these are issues that could eventually be tackled the moment there was sufficient momentum for those with greater capacity once they returned to the country.

At the same time while I was an academic, I did find efficiency to be an issue over some questionable programmes, but never did I hear a hint of corruption. This distinction needs to be made. I may be wrong, but at the present time this is the extent of what I know to be true.

Even if all the PhD scholars sent abroad do not return, it will have been to our benefit, like the huge NRI’s who eventually returned to India to spur its growth. The change through the HEC has been cultural as well, where academics were lifted out of the complacency in stagnant institutions. The idea that research was important, the idea that our academic bodies could have world-wide connections took hold, and this was nothing less than a revolution.

In some ways the most damning, but least credible critique has come from Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan. His assertion that Dr Ata-u-Rehman has Delhi origins like Musharraf’s to explain his ascendancy in higher education management has been nothing less than a sucker punch. Dr Khan has been exhibiting a desire to rehabilitate himself, which is why his critique of Dr Ata-ur-Rehman makes extensive use of his own contributions to education that frankly pale in comparison to what the HEC achieved, and at the same time bemoaning to the IHC of his loss of stature as a national hero. Dr Qadeer Khan has been illegally detained without the benefit of a free trial, and he like everyone else deserves the right to his day in court and free himself from charges that he once accepted but now denies.

But when it comes to Dr Ata-ur-Rehman, let’s stick to the appreciation and critiques from Dr Tariq Rehman and Dr Hoodbhoy because they give a fairer assessment. The HEC has been a partial success, and that is more than can be said for any other institution under the government this decade.

The writer is a Rhodes scholar and former academic. Email: fasizaka@

Source: The News, 30/10/2008


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