ISLAMABAD: Universities across the country do not have the money to pay their staff in December, Higher Education Commission Director General Finance Zaigham Ali told a parliamentary body on Thursday.

“Universities have approached us for help. The HEC has cut other expenditures to help two universities pay their staff’s salaries,” he told a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Science and Technology.

Ten days ago, the HEC had asked the government to immediately release Rs7 billion so universities would be able to pay salaries in December, Mr Ali told the meeting. He said the HEC has also asked for another Rs21 billion, “without which most universities will run into serious trouble”.

The committee was informed that the total requirement for universities in the 2019-20 budget was Rs103.5bn. The government released Rs59.9bn, he said, and universities require Rs86.4bn to pay salaries this year. The meeting was also told that the HEC chairman met with the science and technology minister, the president and the finance minister and secretary regarding this situation, to no avail.

Comsats University Rector Raheel Qamar told senators that a 10pc increase in fees is imminent if the government does not fund his institution.

“Students come from the middle and lower middle classes. Their parents will not be able to bear this burden,” he said.

Mr Qamar said that after the government cut 11pc of his university’s budget, he was forced to drop various programmes including convocations and more than Rs30 million in funding that is annually allocated to teachers for research and development.

“We are short Rs575m,” Mr Qamar said, adding that he could not afford to shut down departments for emerging sciences such as nano technology and big data because this would spell disaster for the university.

Comsats spends 80pc of its budget on salaries, he added.

“We have a limited budget and expenditures are strictly controlled. The slightest cuts in our budget become unmanageable. This year the HEC cut Comsats budget by Rs252m. Students in rural campuses are particularly suffering after the HEC discontinued scholarship programmes for underprivileged students,” he said.

He added that the university suffered further losses when the HEC suspended its distance learning programme two years ago.

Committee chair Senator Mushtaq Ahmed Khan urged the Comsats rector not to consider raising fees and said it should not be an option. He also criticised him for suspending research support, saying: “You have smothered research.”

Senator Syed Mohammad Sabir Shah said: “Research is the foundation of education. What else will the university do now?”

However, Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry told the committee that universities would have to stop relying on the government for funding.

“Like all modern organisations, universities will have to come up with proposals to generate income for themselves like most advanced universities,” he said.

Mr Chaudhry claimed that the government had a little less than Rs150bn left in its budget after paying off debts and allocating a significant portion to defence. He said the ministry has put new projects on hold to fund universities for immediate assistance.

The committee also criticised the HEC for directing universities to discontinue their distance learning programmes.

HEC Managing Director Nadia Tahir told senators that the quality of education was compromised after some universities began providing fake certificates.

She said: “The HEC has prepared a uniform policy for distant learning programmes for education institutions which is likely to be approved by the commission by the end of the month.”

Ms Tahir also told the committee that the HEC is preparinganother policy to assist universities in generating their own income.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2019

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