Revitalising an institution that has suffered neglect for more than half a century is no small task. Like many of the country’s oldest institutions, the University Grants Commission (UGC), established in 1947, was in desperate need of an overhaul.

“The UGC was practically dormant,” says Syed Imtiaz Hussain Gilani, Acting Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). “It was channelling money to universities but there was little in the way of over-arching policy.” The problem with the UGC had to do with its driving philosophy. “In every country, education is the vehicle that pulls the train of the state,” says Gilani. “Higher education is the engine behind the socio-economic growth of the nation.” This is the philosophy of the HEC and what drives the reform it aims to bring about in Pakistan’s system of higher education.

Established in 2002 to take over the operations of the UGC, the HEC is an autonomous body that funds, oversees, regulates and provides accreditation to higher education institutions. “In Pakistan you need a central body to ensure that standards of higher education are the same, to make sure that the provinces are in harmony with each other,” Gilani explains. “If you don’t have a central body then it creates inequity in education across the country.”

The HEC has made remarkable strides in the 12 years since it was established. Evidence of this is on display at colleges and universities across the country, with renovated buildings, refurbished classrooms and laboratories, and improved facilities. But the changes HEC aims to bring about are not merely cosmetic. As a result of its efforts the demand for higher education is also growing. Before 2002, only 3 per cent of Pakistanis between the ages of 17 and 23 were enrolled in universities. Currently that number stands at over 8 per cent, which Gilani believes is an indicator that parents and young people have more confidence in the value of a university education.

“Our policy at the HEC is to make higher education relevant to the market,” says Gilani. “Previously higher education had nothing to do with ground realities. There was a huge need for skilled workers to contribute to the economy but the approach to learning was more lofty.” The HEC has been working to ensure that universities offer subjects that create a pool of talent that is in keeping with the needs of the country. This does not mean that purely academic subjects are being marginalised but rather that academia, politics and industry are on the same page.

“Previously there was a huge gap and academics used to think that politicians and industrialists were below them and didn’t want to soil their hands getting involved with them,” Gilani notes. “Politicians and industrialists used to think that academics were arrogant, sitting in their ivory towers divorced from reality, with their heads in the clouds. The fact is that one can’t do without the other.” He points to the fact that the government recently contacted him to help set up a university of technology in Peshawar, the first of its kind. “Previously this sort of communication would have been unheard of.”

Improving quality is another major pillar of the HEC’s philosophy. It has developed a system of protocols, monitoring and evaluation for universities to ensure that standards are maintained. As a result, the University of Faisalabad and the University of Sargodha have improved their services across all departments and the Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences now provides state-of-the-art information technology and management science education to thousands of students

The HEC has also increased access to scholarships for studies within Pakistan and abroad. Currently they offer 10 overseas scholarship programmes, six scholarship programmes for studying in Pakistan and three need-based scholarship programmes, covering a range of disciplines.

Quality research is another area where the HEC has excelled. “There is a marked difference in the type of research being done,” Gilani says. “A lot of the research previously was purely academic, with no basis in Pakistan’s realities. But now we have a major shift towards applied research and the work coming out of higher educational institutions is a lot more focused.” Students are being published more frequently in international journals, creating greater partnerships and avenues for collaboration with other institutions.

“There is so much intellect in this country,” Gilani says. “Our mission is to unleash this intellect into the public sphere, where young people can become involved in issues that affect the country and eventually be a part of policy making. What we are doing is bringing about radical change. We want to create leaders.”

In just 12 years, the HEC has begun to transform the higher education landscape in Pakistan—change that is essential for the future of the economy and the country as a whole. Its track record proves that even within state institutions, change is possible. All it takes is vision.