THE recent government decision to slash the budget of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), from Rs65 billion to Rs25 billion, has left the university-level education sector in utter disarray. A government that expects its youth to lead the nation towards a prosperous future should not have cut the budget that supports their education. The decision has sparked outrage and confusion, highlighting a stark disconnection between governmental priorities and the actual needs of the critical sector. The budget cuts are a catastrophic blow to over 160 public universities across the country.

The HEC has confirmed receiving the official letters from the Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission. Its reaction, understandably, was one of grave concern. The federal universities alone now have to stretch a budget that can barely keep the lights on.

The HEC can no longer fund provincial universities, which means the provinces must fend for themselves, which is just not going to happen becasue of the rather meek financial state of provincial governments, .

The silence from major political parties on this critical issue is rather deafening. It is as if higher education was never a priority in their manifestos, and, come to think of it, historical patterns suggest it never went beyond mere rhetoric.

On their part, university administra-tions have their own tales of financial mismanagement. There are whispers, and sometimes even loud allegations, of funds having been either diverted or misappropriated. If the universities are to plead for more funds, they must also demonstrate a better sense of financial responsibility. The recurring budget for federal universities actually needs to be scrutinised to compare last year’s allocations with actual spendings. This would enable a more robust response from the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA).

There are 24 federal universities for which a budget of Rs25 billion will now be available. It is evident that the budget will not even cover staff salaries, let alone the other operational costs. That being so, simply forget about research or development projects. The situation is like asking an elephant to subsist on crumbs.

The Sindh government has been the only one that has consistently allocated reasonable funds for higher education. In stark contrast, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has only a marginal allocation for universities. This discrepancy paints a messy picture of provincial priorities and capacities. Ultimately, the federal government will bear the brunt of these budget cuts, potentially affecting even federal universities’ shares.

Vague political decisions always end up costing the public, exacerbating the politics of divide and rule. The inconsis- tency in funding across provinces is not just a financial issue; it is a political one as well, highlighting the fragmented approach to education in the country.

The government needs to not only increase the higher education budget, but also develop a long-term, concrete plan. Higher education in Pakistan is at a critical juncture. We can either choose to let it wither under financial constraints and mismanagement, or take bold steps to ensure it thrives.

Dr Imran Sabir
Islamabad

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2024

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