THE Higher Education Commission (HEC) chairman, while recently interacting with journalists, urged the federal and provincial governments not to establish further public-sector higher education institutions till the country comes out of the current financial crisis.

Instead, he wants focus on the quality of already established government institutions. Earlier this year, the federal education minister imposed a ban on the opening of new universities on the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Education and Training of the National Assembly. These statements indicate a chronic policy problem the country has been facing since its inception. The current realisation goes way beyond quality or the current financial crisis. It is an issue of the sustainability of public higher education system in Pakistan.

The news of the unsustainability of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Pakistan is nothing new. According to Ministry of Finance, out of 202 SOEs, 197 suffered losses in 2018. Overall, the government has been sustaining a net loss since 2015 on account of the SOEs. I fear the disease may spread beyond commercial enterprises into the realm of higher education.

The bureaucratic red-tapism and temporary political gains that led to the current situation of the SOEs are now making their way to the higher education sector, too. Our blatant failure to timely redress and acknowledge the issues led us to the mess that we are in today.

Similarly, the higher education sector is rolling towards an unsustainable future and timely amends in its course is the only way to its survival. Otherwise, it will just become another white elephant with its costs exceeding its contribution to society and economy. It was vital to develop higher education infrastructure across the country given the fact that at the time of its inception, Pakistan had only a single university, the University of the Punjab in Lahore, and merely 40 colleges.

Since the establishment of the HEC on Sept 11, 2002, the higher education sector has been making strides in almost every avenue; from faculty development to the establishment of new institutions. But there is always an optimal limit to a problem expanding beyond which will result in a decline leading towards an unsustainable situation. There are currently over 200 public and private universities in Pakistan, and among these around 150 are public-sector universities. Out of these 150 universities, many hold multiple campuses across the country, and more than 50 per cent of the universities were established after 2002.

Currently, Pakistan is facing an economic crisis, but despite the current financial limitations, an exponential increase in the number of higher educational institutions itself imposed an additional financial burden on the state treasury.

The increase in institutions without any rationalisation for demographic needs is also making it difficult to maintain optimal student enrolment. This also impacts the quality of graduates and revenue collected by these institutions, further adding to the budgetary problems.

These issues, when coupled with the decreasing, or at best stagnant, HEC recurring budget, lead to a constant decrease in government’s financial support for the universities. The severity of these issues was recently witnessed when some universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) were unable to discharge their salary liabilities timely.

As the majority of universities were established after 2002, they currently have a nominal pension budget to support. But another 20 years down the line, the pension burden will also have increased exponentially, causing additional burden on the national exchequer while also making exponential increase in fee structure inevitable. The latter element will make it impossible for students belonging to low socio-economic background to pursue higher education. This surely will not be a desirable outcome.

All these issues point towards timely rationalisation and redirection of political and structural policies to avoid making higher education another white elephant. Politicians should not make announcements of new universities for political gains and point-scoring.

Historically, political interference for temporary political gains remained a key determinant of poor performance and over-employment in SOEs. A rationalisation of already established institutions is the need of the hour. Besides, each year almost 0.5 million students graduate from universities in Pakistan. Out of these, only 35pc students get jobs, while a large number of graduates go abroad seeking greener pastures.

The problem is that instead of utilising that talent for our benefit, our public-sector higher education system is providing subsidised higher education to provide a skilled and professional workforce to economies abroad. With the ever-ailing economic condition, Pakistan does not have the luxury of leaving these issues unaccounted for, and it is, therefore, vital to plan timely and accordingly.

Dr Muhammad Haroon Rasheed
Sargodha

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2022

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