AS the country tries to paddle through a sinking economy, public universities too have been forced to tighten their belts in the face of drastic budget cuts by the federal government. Pakistan’s allocation for higher education in 2018-2019 was already the lowest in the region, at 2.4pc of the GDP, and the recent cuts will end up practically paralysing higher education institutions across the country. The federal government has slashed the overall education budget by around 20pc, while it has allocated Rs28.64bn for the Higher Education Commission, against its demand of Rs55bn — a difference of more than 50pc. This is a significant reduction in funds to institutions that were already cash-strapped and barely meeting their yearly financial requirements. Several universities in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are already finding it difficult to disburse salaries to staff and faculty members. Traditionally, higher education in Pakistan has always been ‘subsidised’. It means that universities spend way more than they are able to earn in the form of revenue through tuition fees from students, and hence rely heavily on government grants for their day-to-day operations, including payment of salaries, allowances and bills. The deep cuts in funding to varsities mean that many ongoing research, development or scholarship programmes will either have to be stalled or scrapped.
Considering that only a fraction of Pakistani youth are able to attend institutes of higher education, if the universities resort to increasing tuition fees, they will end up adding to the educational disparity in the country as young men and women from lower-middle and middle income households will find it difficult to attend universities. It is true that the higher education system, and even the HEC, not only needs reform in the system but also in its ethos; cutting down on already meagre funding for public-sector universities will only end up crippling the entire system. When it was elected to power, the PTI had promised to work towards improving and increasing educational opportunities for young people, who make up the bulk of its support base. According to the UNDP, 29pc of Pakistan’s population — roughly 57m — is between the ages of 15 and 29. Perhaps the government should use this crisis to sit down with academics and scholars and find ways to make universities financially and academically independent, and free from political influence that becomes inevitable if institutions have to rely on periodic cash injections from those in power.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2019