Mired in recurring crises, education takes a back seat at the University of Balochistan

Over the months, the crisis has gone from bad to worse. Many of the teachers and other employees have been living hand to mouth. Some, including professors, are unable to send their children to school as they cannot afford the fees.
Published September 1, 2023

On a rainy Monday some months ago, the University of Balochistan (UoB) wore a deserted look as faculty members, protesting against the non-payment of salaries, brought academic activities to a standstill. Everyone, from professors to janitorial staff, was gathered outside the main gate on Sariab Road — the main artery that runs through the city of Quetta.

At the protest, the teachers started collecting donations and selling vegetables to demonstrate their helplessness. Seemingly embarrassed by this show of vulnerability, the provincial government swung into action and within the next few days, released a month’s salary.

Several months on, the crisis persists — if anything, it has only grown worse. And while the staff’s salaries have been paid for now, each month’s payroll brings a new struggle.

The root of the problem

On a recent Tuesday, the treasurer of UoB, Jiand Jamaldini, opened his office amid protests to speak to Dawn.com about the prevailing crisis. He printed out a breakdown of the varsity’s budgetary constraints and then walked me through each point, explaining them in detail. Jamaldini said he had also shared these details with the authorities, both in Quetta and Islamabad, but as always, his words had fallen on deaf ears.

“What is the current nature of the crisis being faced by the varsity?” I asked. After a brief pause, he replied that the crisis is not new. “Instead of resolving the financial woes of the varsity, we are asked to generate revenue on our own.” He went on to list the multiple facets of the varsity’s financial woes one by one.

“[This] is not possible yet. For instance, if we increase the fee, students protest, and most of the students will have to say goodbye to their education as they would not be able to afford the fees … 70 per cent of our students come from poor families, from the rural parts of Balochistan.”

Instead of waiting for another question, he posed the next one himself, before going on to explain why the university has been unable to generate significant revenue. “The major income of the varsity was accumulated through private BA and MA examinations, which have been abolished by the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) new policy discontinuing the two-year programmes. Despite the meagre source of revenue, the number of pensioners is increasing, as well as other liabilities that take up a larger portion of the budget.”

The treasurer added that countries such as India and Bangladesh spend 4-4.5pc of their budget on education, while Pakistan spends only about 1.5-2pc. “This is the reason our universities are in deep crises across the country, including the UoB,” he said.

Like a broken record

The UoB was founded in the 1970s and is the oldest and largest state-run university of the province, often dubbed as the ‘mother varsity’. Like its history of formation, the university’s crises too go a long way back.

Back in 2013, I covered the UoB crisis for a local media organisation in Quetta. On Dec 3, 2013, teachers and staff of the varsity commenced a begging bowl campaign, to protest against the government of Balochistan for not providing adequate financial resources to them. Back then, the teachers and staff also complained, as they are now, that they had not received their salaries for over six months.

While acknowledging that this is an old issue, Jamaldini explained that the most recent crisis had been brewing for the last two years.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution transferred significant powers to the provinces, including higher education. In this regard, Jamaldini said, “Whenever we go to the HEC, they ask us to go knock on the doors of our own provincial government because they [are responsible for] transferring our funds via the National Finance Commission (NFC). And then, we do not get it from there under the pretext of lack of funds. The funds do not trickle down to us from either side. Unlike Punjab and Sindh, Balochistan does not have a provincial HEC.”

While the amendment ordered the establishment of higher education commissions in all provinces, Balochistan still does not have one, nor has the provincial government, including the nationalist government of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, made any serious efforts to establish it.

On April 17, during a meeting of the University Finance Commission (UFC), Dr Kaleem Barech — president of the Academic Staff Association of UoB — said: “The provincial government of Balochistan agreed to release a Rs380 million package for the UoB, which was later slashed to Rs150m because Hafiz Abdul Majid, the then-secretary of colleges, was opposed to it. This happened, despite the varsity being an autonomous body. But the bureaucracy wants to run it like they run government schools in Balochistan. We have not even received the promised 150m.”

For his part, Majid denied creating any hurdles in the allocation or disbursal of the varsity’s funds. The former secretary of colleges explained that during a meeting, the chief minister had pledged Rs350m for the varsity, adding that, “I would not object even if he provided Rs1 billion”.

“The varsity administration and staff could not present their case,” he told Dawn.com over the phone. “They had already obtained Rs30m from the HEC, and required Rs15m. So, I only argued that they should be given the required Rs15m instead of the total amount.”

According to Majid, he had told the varsity administration to come up with justifications for the funds, as their issue was a never ending one. “The varsity has to put its own house in order, otherwise their demands will never end.”

From bad to worse

The varsity administration and its staff, however, deny this is the case. Dr Barech, the staff association president, demands that under the Balochistan Universities Act 2022, teachers, students, employees, and their associations ought to be included in the policymaking bodies.

“The varsity is an old institution; it is the responsibility of the government to resolve its unending crisis. The teachers are mentally perturbed and disappointed [due to non-payment of salaries], which is affecting their academic and teaching services,” he said.

Over the months, the crisis has gone from bad to worse. Many of the teachers and other employees have been living hand to mouth. Some, including professors, are unable to send their children to school as they cannot afford the fees.

One such employee is Abdul Hakeem Baloch.

He joined the UoB during its first year as a security guard. “I have never seen such a crisis throughout my career here,” he said. “I am going to retire in a year or so, and my salary is now Rs27,000. I have been living hand to mouth. I have to take on debts to cover my family’s expenses. Shopkeepers and friends have stopped giving me loans now.”

A father of five, the angst and discomfort on his wrinkled face was apparent. He forcibly laughed while discussing his economic woes. “I only bought clothes for two of my younger children, and that too with Zakat money,” he recalled. He held his ears as if asking for forgiveness for taking Zakat, which he believed he was not entitled to. “I have kept it hidden from my wife, especially from my children; we would always give Zakat instead of taking it. We are living a miserable life and it’s as if the government has vanished.”

Like other employees, the professors too had anxiety etched on their faces. The crisis also taught them all a harsh life lesson — many of their friends had stopped meeting them. “Now we know who our friends are and who are not,” one of them said in jest. “We are teachers, who depend on our salaries to run affairs, we do not have other sources of income.”

Among chaos, education suffers

The current crisis has had a major impact on academic activities, particularly for female students. Many of the students hail from the rural parts of Balochistan and come to Quetta in pursuit of higher education, where they live in hostels away from their homes despite facing many odds and societal pressure.

“The crisis has adversely affected our education,” said Halima Baloch, a physiotherapy student from Turbat. “I have come back to my hometown, since there have been no classes for the past two months. Under these circumstances, we come under tremendous pressure during exams.”

“Most of our learning in physiotherapy is practical,” she said over the phone, “Instead of practically treating patients, we have to rote learn our slides. Our precious time of learning is going to waste.”

Courtesy the provincial government’s apathy, the crisis is only going to get worse. One of the professors shared a letter from the chief minister, asking for a progress report on the implementation of the recommendations by the Universities Reforms Committee (URC) and the HEC.

Among other things, the government has asked for a discontinuation of the services of contract and daily waging staff and faculty, withdrawal of services of the employees rehired after retirement, and merger of identical departments, particularly different language departments into one. It also asked for the discontinuation of programmes such as psychology, where supposedly only one student is enrolled.

Dr Saima Ambreen, who heads the psychology department, refuted this claim: “There are more than 175 students in the department, who are mostly being taught by qualified PhD teachers.”

“This reflects another crisis in the making,” she said.

Crying foul

Like Jamaldini, the other professors and association leaders too had prepared notes and suggestions. One of them was Syed Shah Babar from the joint secretary officers’ association.

He narrated his notes and looked at me as if I was a student from his class to explain further.

“Unlike Punjab and Sindh, the Balochistan government has not created a provincial HEC. Following the 18th amendment, the share of Balochistan via the NFC should be 9pc, but it is being given 4.5pc. This is why varsities in the province are facing a financial crunch.”

He added that the university ought to be given a bailout package: “The provincial and federal government should give a bailout package to lift the varsity out of the lingering crisis, of Rs10bn, annually.” Dr Barech also demands a bailout package from the provincial and federal government of Rs2bn and Rs3bn respectively, to bring normalcy to the university.

Renowned economist Kaiser Bengali, too, held the provincial and federal governments responsible for not disbursing adequate funds to Balochistan’s universities in the absence of the the province’s own HEC. “Because Balochistan does not have a provincial HEC yet, it is the responsibility of the federal and provincial government to release funds for the varsities and the salaries to run them.”

A number of universities and campuses have sprung up in Balochistan in the recent past. In this regard, Dr Barech argued that they had been established without proper budgeting and planning. Moreover, most of their vice chancellors — who are receiving inflated salaries — have been unjustifiably appointed without proper rules and regulations. “Our authorities make campuses, not budgets,” he said.

“There are around 750 retired UoB employees, and this number will go up to about 800 this year while the number of current academic staff and employees is more than 1,500,” pointed out Sher Ali Bugti, president of the employees’ association. “Our vice chancellor, Shafique-ur-Rehman, spends most of his time in Islamabad, instead of taking and looking into the varsity’s matters seriously. Not to mention, he is illegally appointed,” alleged Bugti.

In the midst of the crisis, Daily Intekhab, a local Urdu paper from Balochistan, reported on the malpractices and corruption of Vice Chancellor Rehman stating: “The vice chancellor, between 2020 to 2022, has received Rs8.3m and and an additional Rs99,000, respectively as salary and allowances.”

When Dawn.com contacted VC Rehman, he said that he was not feeling well and that the treasurer, Jamaldini, should be contacted for any queries regarding the crisis instead.

This begs the question: If the varsity head himself is not bothered about the varsity’s issues while actively benefiting from its salary and perks, what interest will others take?

Officials’ apathy

Varsities across Balochistan have been plunged into a deep crisis. For instance, the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS) and Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University — the sole women-only university in the province — too are under a financial crunch, largely due to the government’s negligence.

Being the oldest and largest university in the province, however, the effects are most prominent and profound at the UoB. The employees we spoke to did not mince their words about the government’s negligence. “Protest has become a norm at our varsity to draw the authorities’ attention to our financial woes. Thanks to the protests, we are being given some oxygen on a ventilator. If we did not protest, our varsity would have closed a long time ago,” said Dr Barech.

“Under these circumstances, we have implored the provincial government to raise the grants-in-aid for all public sector universities in Balochistan to at least Rs10bn,” said Jamaldini. “Meanwhile, the varsity pays Rs250m to employees, including salaries and pensions.”

The UoB also established an endowment fund from its own resources, explained Mr Jamaldini. “Besides the varsity’s Rs7m, the Punjab government also provided Rs30m, while the Balochistan government in the past contributed Rs20m, with an intention to raise it to Rs1bn.

“Within five years of the varsity’s investment to the fund, it increased to Rs130m with an interest of Rs14.7m. But the salaries and pensions consumed the entire amount, bringing it back to zero.

“The provincial government should create an endowment fund of Rs10bn as a long-term solution to steer the varsity out of crisis,” said Jamaldini in his concluding remarks.

Dr Barech regrets that besides the government’s negligence, it has also been choosy and stingy in providing funds. “For instance, in its 2022-23 budget, the Balochistan government presented its total expenditure to be Rs614bn, while only Rs2.5bn was provided in the form of grants to 11 public universities. This is highly insufficient and inadequate to meet the universities’ financial requirements.”

The crisis has reached a point where survival is becoming more and more difficult. As I was about to leave, Bugti told me the worst of it: “Ameer Jan Buledi, an employee of UoB, had to pull his children out of school as he could no longer afford their school fees. Unfortunately, he recently died of a heart attack.”

The header image is AI-generated via Shutterstock.