Appointment Of Vice Chancellors In Public Sector Universities
The significance of visionary leadership as vice chancellors in higher education institutions can never be overstated. Such leadership shapes the future and destiny of these institutions and consequently empowers generations to face challenges with confidence, which are unfolded with every passing moment. Higher education primarily deals with infrastructure and superstructure of research and educational facilities at institutions of higher learning. Enhancing these facilities along with their quality and making them affordable to the masses may pave for upgradation in the social and technological spheres of any country. But whatever may be the benefits of investing in this important field, these benefits cannot be reaped unless and until we have a futuristic legal structure in place. Such a legal framework for the appointment of vice chancellors in public sector universities had been missing in Pakistan before the pronouncement of a recent decision of the Lahore High Court in Dr Aurangzeb Aalamghir vs. Province of Punjab (http://sys.lhc.gov.pk/appjudgments/2016LHC3361.pdf), or at least confusions of multifarious kinds had been prevalent in this regard. By shattering away some of the confusions, this landmark decision has laid the foundation for the selection of visionary leadership as vice chancellors through an impartial and unbiased procedure for steering the seats of higher learning into the future.
Like many other landmark cases, the initiation of this case was rather an ordinary exercise of a statutory step taken by the government of Punjab. The Punjab government under the powers conferred upon it in light of the Public Sector Universities (Amendment) Act 2012 advertised the vacancies of vice chancellors in four public sector universities, including University of the Punjab, Lahore. Some teachers -retired and serving- of the University of Punjab filed their case before the Lahore High Court, in November 2105, challenging the manner of appointment of vice chancellors in Punjab. They were of the view that the process initiated by the Punjab government in this regard was not in line with constitutional provisions. Having found strength in the argument advanced, the court stayed the process of selection and resorted to the hearing of writ petitions.
Leaving other details aside, the main thrust of the case was on the criterion formulated by the Punjab government for the selection of vice chancellors. After promulgation of the aforementioned Act of 2012, the Punjab government had assumed this onerous responsibility on its own shoulders and had drafted the criterion. It was of the opinion that the 18th Amendment had devolved the subject of higher education to the provinces and in this post 18th Amendment scenario, the provinces were empowered to craft the criterion for selection of vice chancellors without giving any heed to the advice emanating from the federal government or its main organ in this regard i.e. the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC). Such a view was entertained by the Punjab government despite the fact that there was an unambiguous entry in the federal legislative list declaring that legislation on the standards of higher education fell within the domain of the federal government and the latter had assigned this task to the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan through a legislative instrument.
The court delving into the intricacies of governance at the institutions of higher education on one hand and federalism on the other held that, as per constitutional mandate, no provincial government could formulate the criterion for appointment of vice chancellors in its respective province and that this task is to be performed by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. The court has drawn a line between the legal empowerment to formulate a criterion and the manner of its implementation/execution in the provinces. It has been declared that the former is the domain of the federal government which would be exercised through the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, whereas the latter is within the power of the provinces. So once the criterion is drafted, its implementation would be carried out by the provinces in respect of those universities which are situated in their territorial jurisdiction. Drawing this fine line between the criterion and its implementation is a novel legal crafting which on one hand is in line with the constitutional mandate, and on the other would not create a sense of deprivation among the provinces as the executing power rests with them.
It has been observed by the court that in formulating the criterion, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan should examine the advanced standards prevalent in other countries for selection of vice chancellors. If this direction of the court is heeded to properly by the Commission and the criterion is crafted after examining the internationally prevalent standards for selection of vice chancellors, hopefully Pakistani universities and institutions of higher learning would have the best leaders to manage their affairs. A leader with a vision can help imagine what tomorrow holds and build the capacity to engage with such futuristic needs. At the moment, the institutions of higher learning are suffering from academic stagnation due to stereotypical selection of their leaders. A visionary leadership can get rid of the malaise of stagnation afflicted to our universities and prepare them to produce socially and technologically relevant research and manpower. The court has identified the malaise and asked the governments -federal and provincial- to formulate standards in the manner they are formulated in developed countries. This sort of futuristic vision should have been demonstrated by the governments themselves, but when it has not been done by them the honorable court filled the gap and facilitated the governments on how to accomplish this much need task.
Uneasiness and anxiety is being demonstrated by some officials of the provinces, particularly Punjab, as to the conferment of power to formulate the criterion of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. It is worth observing that the court has not prohibited the participation and consultation of the provinces while formulating the criterion. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan may consult the provinces during the criterion formulating process and the provinces could share their thoughts, thus in this participatory manner the criterion could be laid down. For instance, a committer may be constituted by the Commission having representation from all provinces and the recommendations coming from such committee be considered the groundwork for the criterion. What the court has desired in the decision is that the criterion should have federalistic flavor applying to all provinces in the same manner and fashion. Moreover, it should not appear to be whimsically tailored by the provinces for selecting their own cronies as vice chancellors.
In addition to resolving the manner of formulation of the criterion by the federal government, the court also pondered upon the manner of how it is to be implemented by the provinces, maintaining the true spirit of the legal framework. Provinces had previously constituted search committees in a generic manner and the same search committee had been used to select the vice chancellors of various universities, disregarding the special focus of such universities. For instance, the same committee was used to select the vice chancellor for medical, engineering, women and general universities. The court has observed that there should be specialized search committees for each university so that all relevant considerations should be taken into account for selecting the most appropriate persons as vice chancellors. Implementation of this direction would be carried out by the provinces by manning the search committees with specialists and experts from the same field in which they would select the vice chancellors. The search committees of medical universities would have eminent health professionals and consultants and engineering universities would be manned by renowned engineering experts. Hitherto, a general search committee was expected to perform this multifarious task, which by all means was an impossible task, ultimately causing our institutions to drag behind and underperform.
Another significant legal innovation directed by the court is to constitute search committees without having official members on them. As per the court, provinces generally appoint officials in committees who outnumber the independent members. Thereafter, the governments through these official members manage the selection of their favoured candidate, bypassing the wishes of other independent members of the committees. This particular maneuvering technique leaves the entire legal structure as a farce. In this regard, the court has held that all persons on the committees should have an independent posture and be known for honesty and integrity in their respective fields. If this judicial order is made to see the light of day, the whole enterprise of appointing vice chancellors in public sector universities would be transformed and would attune the universities to welcome the future with an independent academic atmosphere and learning.
In short, the honorable Lahore High Court has attempted to cure the malaise of stagnation afflicted to the institutions of higher learning in Pakistan in respect of appointment of vice chancellors to public sector universities and the ball is in the court of the governments -federal and provincial- to execute this in letter and spirit. It is expected that these remedial measures, if implemented, would rejuvenate the higher seats of learning and in turn make our generations face challenges posed by today’s fast changing age.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.