Death of higher education Dr Ashfaque H Khan Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The universities of Pakistan are facing severe financial difficulties. Their budgets have been slashed mercilessly over the last three years -- down from Rs 33.4 billion in 2006-07 to perhaps Rs 8-9 billion in 2010-11. Such a senseless reduction is in complete disregard to the importance of higher education in economic development -- more so in an era of globalisation and competitiveness. 

Frustrated by the attitude of the economic team, 68 vice-chancellors of Pakistani universities gathered at the Higher Education Commission (HEC) last week and confronted the finance minister and his team. They presented their case for enhancement of the allocation for education in the budget. But they were told to generate their own resources, by selling the universities' properties and lands, convert the universities into commercial ventures and raise tuition fees. What a great piece of advice given to the vice-chancellors by the "educated" economic team.

It appears that the government has decided to shift the responsibility of financing universities to the provincial governments in the aftermath of the new NFC Award. Who would know better than the finance minister about the fiscal indiscipline of the provincial governments? Does he believe that the provincial governments would be providing adequate resources to the universities? 

Acquiring a university degree has emerged as a form of human-capital investment. The world is witnessing the emergence of a knowledge-based economy where the role of knowledge is recognised as a critical input to economic growth. The concept of a knowledge economy is often used to illustrate the shift from an economy based on low-skills industrial production to knowledge-intensive production and services. A competitive economy can only be based on a well-educated workforce, as well as a dynamic R&D sector. 

The state of higher education in Pakistan was in a pathetic condition prior to the establishment of the HEC in September 2002. In 1999 we had 48 universities, and access to higher education was only 2.6 per cent, compared to 10 per cent in India and 68 per cent in South Korea. The number of PhDs and engineers per million population was only 112 -- about one-third of the minimum standards prescribed by UNESCO. We had only 2,600 science PhDs and the country was producing barely 50-60 per annum.

It was in this background that the then government launched a multi-pronged strategy, including the establishment of the HEC, with a view to guiding the higher education policy and assisting universities and other degree-awarding institutions in the pursuit of quality education, and thereby facilitating efforts to transform Pakistan into a knowledge economy.

In order to achieve the objectives, the government provided substantial resources to higher education. The development budget for higher education increased from Rs500 million in 1998-99 to Rs14.4 billion in 2006-07. Such a massive increase in resources to higher education resulted in the rise of number of higher-education institutions, in both public and private sectors. The number of universities increased from 59 in 2000-01 to 132 in 2009-10. Through the addition of sub-campuses, the number increased from 116 to 258 during the same period. The number of students enrolled in 2001-02 was 276,274, but increased to 948,364 in 2009-10. The number of PhDs produced by Pakistani universities increased sharply, from 176 in 2000 to 624 in 2009. 

Three thousand eight hundred students are enrolled in PhD programmes in foreign universities, of which 303 have completed their programme; 3,508 students are enrolled in PhD programmes in Pakistani universities, of which 336 have completed their programmes. Most importantly, teaching in universities has emerged as a prized profession in the country. Such an impressive achievement in such a short period was unprecedented.

After a beginning had been made to correct historical imbalances in higher education, the present government began to de-emphasise higher education and slashed its development budget to Rs11 billion in 2009-10, even prior to the recent floods. Higher education was allocated Rs15.7 billion in the 2010-11 budget, but the finance team is bent upon cutting it further to Rs9 billion. There is no guarantee of the release of even this insultingly low amount, with the floods as the excuse for the failure. 

Such a sharp reduction in the universities' budgets has created enormous difficulties for on-going programmes, including those of PhD students studying abroad. The foreign universities were not paid the students' tuition fees, nor the students provided their living expenses. Hundreds of ongoing development projects in various universities have been suspended, and the contractors have not been paid their bills for work already completed. This is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. 

Should we starve our universities and kill higher education in Pakistan, and with it the dream of the country's becoming a knowledge economy? Finding Rs10-15 billion's additional resources for higher education should not be a difficult job, provided the finance team has no ulterior designs. 

Can't we divert several of the billion rupees allocated for Multan under the budgets the ministry of finance, the NHA and PEPCO? Can't we defer the People's Works Programmes of the MNAs and divert at least half the allocation (Rs15 billion) to higher education? Are the People's Works Programmes or the "development" of Multan more important than higher education in the country? Many more billions can easily be diverted to the funding of Pakistani universities. 

The finance minister and his team should look into this affair without prejudice. It is the government that needs to reprioritise its expenditure, and not the universities. It is the government that needs to sell the bleeding and rotten public-sector enterprises to raise resources, and not the universities being required to sell off their properties and lands. I am sure the finance minister would never like to be known in Pakistan as the slayer of higher education. 

The writer is director general and dean at NUST Business School, Islamabad.


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