Those who oppose the 18th Constitutional Amendment specifically cite education as an example. The argument is that if you devolve all levels of education to provinces, they will mismanage it because there is a lack of capacity at sub-national levels. That is the reason federal bureaucracy has been fighting tooth and nail to hinder the process of devolution in accordance with the 18thAmendment. If you want to see the height of incompetence and mismanagement just visit the National Institute of Science and Technical Education (NISTE) in Islamabad. It was in January 2018 that a news report about NISTE appeared in some leading newspapers of Pakistan.
According to those reports, the Directorate General of Audit of the federal government had found massive irregularities in NISTE accounts. Being an educationist, this writer is always interested in highlighting some good things happening in education in the country; but, when something terribly wrong or unlawful happens, it needs extraordinary care in verification. So this writer decided to personally review the auditor general’s report and visited NISTE for physical verification of the audit observations. It is not only financial and educational irregularities but also a sheer lack of interest on the part of the federal government that NISTE has come to this sorry state.
First, some background and achievements of NISTE supported by international donors such as Canadian International Development Agency (now GAC i.e. Global Affairs Canada) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). NISTE was formed in 1997 at the beginning of the second Nawaz Sharif government when the Institute for Promotion of Science Education and Training (IPSET) and National Technical Teacher Training College (NTTTC) were merged and restructured into a new institution. NISTE is located on a prime piece of land in the centre of Islamabad and is spread over 30 acres.
According to its website, NISTE aims to achieve quality in science and technical education through in-service training, human resource development, research in instructional technology, and coordination of science and technical education activities at national and international levels. It is also supposed to popularise scientific and technical culture in the country. The merger of the two institutes was expected to improve internal efficiency for optimum utilisation of equipment, buildings, and academic and human resources. A review of the documents and personal interviews with some of the staff members at NISTE revealed that the first 10 years (1997 – 2007) of the new institute were good.
That was mainly because only two directors general served the institute. Prof Dr Farid A Khawja for eight years and Major-General Syed Shahid Mukhtar for three years. Though the Maj-Gen inducted army personnel of various ranks into the institute, over all the performance was not bad. In the next 10 years NISTE had almost 20 DGs with an average tenure of just six months each. From 2007 to 2017 it was only thanks to foreign donors such as CIDA (GAC) and JICA that the staff of NISTE has been able to achieve some results. To date NISTE has trained about 25,000 science teachers in various fields.
Pakistan-Canada Debt for Education Conversion Project (DFECP) has played an instrumental role in the achievements of NISTE from 2007 to 2015. Canada had announced that up to $450 million of the outstanding Canadian loan would be converted into an education fund. In April 2006, the two governments signed an agreement and 90 per cent of the debt proceeds were earmarked for the provinces and remaining went to the federal government. The federal share was around Rs670 million that was used for capacity building of teacher-training institutions. With the help from CIDA, NISTE trained around 1200 elementary science teachers from Fata, AJK, GB, and Islamabad.
Similarly, JICA initiated a project for promotion of student-centred and inquiry-based science education (SCIBE) in 2009. With JICA support, NISTE developed teaching plans for grade 4-8 general science using SCIBE approach, developed training guidelines for master trainers, and conducted 20 workshops for the development of teaching plans. In addition, 225 master trainers from AJK, Balochistan, Fata, GB, KP, Punjab, and Sindh, received training on SCIBE approach. JICA also facilitated NISTE in training 500 science teachers for grade 4-7 from Islamabad, and developed 60 videos of science activities for strengthening classroom teaching.
The real credit goes to the staff of NISTE, who — with the help from CIDA and JICA — could achieve that much despite frequent changes in the top management. Since taking over in 2013, the PML-N government has played havoc with NISTE. Just look at the tenures of DGs since 2013: Ghayoor Sultana (3 months), Zarar Haider (2 months), M. J. S. Sultan (2 months), Javed Akhtar (3 months), Rafique Tahir (6 months), Sher Ali (5 months), Omar Hameed (one month), A A Khawja (one month), Rukhsana Rehman (9 months), and Aftab Habib (two years).
Most of these bureaucrats were simply asked to ‘look after’ NISTE or had an ‘additional charge’ while serving their primary duties somewhere else. But according to the staff and the audit report (a copy of which is available with this writer) the real damage has been done by the former DG, Aftab Habib. Though most of the two dozen DGs had no background of science or technical education, the former DG is reported to be particularly ignorant about education matters and according to the audit report indulged in rampant irregularities. The audit observations in the report of December 2017 reveal massive mismanagement.
The first finding of the report on page four says that the machinery and equipment provided by JICA have disappeared from NISTE. The staff of NISTE, and the report, hold the former DG responsible for this because he allowed some of the officers of NISTE to remove machinery and assets from JICA SCIB Centre. JICA had established a fully-functional and equipped SCIBE Centre on the first floor on NISTE. The audit report highlights the fact that the former DG illegally rented out the first floor including the SCIBE Centre to a private firm under the guise of private-public partnership.
During a visit, this writer saw the entire first floor of NISTE occupied by a private firm called ‘360 Technologies’; the NISTE staff confirmed that during evacuation of the science block, costly machinery was misappropriated. The focal person and the storekeeper had lodged a complaint that the top management was removing costly machinery but nobody from the ministry took any action. The audit also found that over Rs15 million were misappropriated by irregular utilisation of utility charges. When the former DG illegally rented out various portions of the building, over Rs15 million were received from the tenants but the amount was never deposited into the NISTE account and utility bills were paid from its government budget.
The auditors also point out that Rs2 million pertaining to development of teacher training and Rs3.4 million relating to POL and repair of vehicles were also misappropriated as no convincing record was shown to the auditors. The audit report laments the fact that during the past five years none of the mandated objectives of NISTE were achieved because the government failed to allocate budget under the training head of NISTE; only the recurring budget was given that was utilised for salary payments. Had there been no CIDA or JICA support, NISTE employees would have been sitting idle.
Some of NISTE staff told this writer that various donors were still willing to support NISTE but the renting out of most labs, classrooms, halls, and even auditorium, has deprived NISTE of its training venues. In another interesting observation, the auditors have pointed out that as per the notification of the Establishment Division the requisite qualification for DG is a PhD in sciences or engineering with 18 years of teaching and research experience and at least six research publications in journals of repute. If you look at the list of 24 DGs at NISTE since 1997, only two appear to have had a PhD.
On page 12 of the audit report, it says: “The management of NISTE, Islamabad, appointed Mr. Aftab Habib of Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS) Group as DG in BPS-21. The audit observed that the officer appointed as DG was not fulfilling the requisite qualifications for appointment. Further, he was drawing Instructional Allowance, 50 per cent remuneration and claiming medical expenditures from receipts of IGP.” The details show that the DG received Rs6.9 million that was irregular and unauthorised. There is also a mention of unauthorised retention or utilisation of departmental receipts amounting to over Rs75 million.
Any such collections need to be deposited in the government account, but another account was opened in the National Bank of Pakistan and money was frequently withdrawn with approval of the DG who was not authorised to do so. In addition, unauthorised payments of around Rs27 million were made. The top management of NISTE also rented out buildings to NTS/COMSATS, 360-Technology, and to Global System of Integrated Studies (GSIS) schools and college and the receipts from rent were illegally distributed among some NISTE employees. No such policy was approved by the Finance Division and the required approval was not there for any such disbursements.
For all utility bills, payments were made from the government account whereas the money received from the tenants was deposited into a newly opened non-government account. The NISTE Complex of the Research Wing was rented out to GSIS incurring a loss of almost Rs13 million. NISTE Hostels consisting of 18 rooms with 48 beds were given to GSIS in August 2017. During the verification visit, this writer observed that all these buildings were occupied by the GSIS and its students were playing in the NISTE playground.
Interestingly, any such so-called ‘public-private partnership’ needs to be assessed by the Ministry of Housing and Works and all such agreements need to scrutinised by the Law Division, and no DG is authorised ‘to rent out the government buildings without consultation with administrative ministry’. The buildings had been handed over to the GSIS in August whereas the agreement commenced in October 2017 for two years. All this was done when the government was considering to declare NISTE as a university, even then the buildings were rented out to other organisations with alarming quickness.
The unauthorised renting out of NISTE buildings at much lower rates than the market has caused a loss of tens of millions; and, even that rent has been used illegally. Hostel E, with 17 living quarters, one dining hall, one common room and one kitchen was given at just Rs20,000 per month to the private firm ‘360 Technology. A Hino bus was also given to the firm with NISTE driver paid by NISTE. The irregular and unauthorised use of vehicles is in addition. There is a pool of ten vehicles, and according to the audit report most of them are being used for personal uses of the top management.
The list is endless. To conclude, we must appreciate the audit department for candid observations and those who finally took action and removed the former DG. Now there is a talk about converting NISTE into a university. The idea is good because NISTE has ample space for expansion and conversion. The NISTE employees who have been highlighting these irregularities must be congratulated for their courageous stand. The government first needs to appoint a properly qualified DG to set the house in order at NISTE and then think about a new university.