NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 32

Expensive higher education

A vice chancellors’ committee meeting, held at the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Islamabad on June 4, 2022, vehemently opposed slashing of its recurring budget to Rs30 billion from the current annual budget of Rs65.250 billion, for the financial year 2022-23. The meeting participants said the budget cut would make it impossible for students coming from lower income groups to get higher education.

Though Federal Ministers Rana Tanvir Hussain and Ahsan Iqbal promised there would be no cut in the budget for higher education, the committee still has doubts. Earlier, the HEC has been demanding the allocation of a Rs104.9 billion recurring budget for the fiscal year 2022-23. HEC Executive Director Dr Shaista Sohail said public-sector universities were under severe financial stress, as it had become difficult for some universities to even pay salaries and pensions. The HEC funds 100 public-sector universities, 50 research centres and 18 new universities.

The federal government provides around 34pc of the funds needed to run universities and provinces allocate 6-8pc funds for them, the HEC executive director said, adding that universities themselves arrange for the rest of their monetary requirements.

A few decades back, education was mostly affordable at the public sector educational institutions in the country. Also, a college degree, it was believed, would hoist its holders into the middle class and then keep them and their children there. In the last 20 years, however, as Pakistan’s economy turned bad, that promise no longer holds. Not only have rising tuition and unmanageable expenses threatened to take first-rate higher education out of the reach for many of the 99%, but it has also become harder for graduates to enter the well-paying careers they went to college for.

As a result, higher education has also lost the principle of the common good. Most in the country now view it solely from a narrow economic perspective. Vocational training seems to be replacing the liberal arts, while administrators strive to make their campuses engines of economic growth, rather than sites for intellectual experimentation and meaningful cultural encounters. Of course, graduates need to earn a living, but they also need to have a life worth living. And adapting colleges and universities to today’s profit-driven environment imposes financial and educational costs that may simply be too high – for students, for the academy and for that elusive common good.

The fiscal crisis during the past two decades has only exacerbated the situation. Public institutions of higher learning, which educate more or less 70pc of the nation’s graduate and undergraduate students, have been in trouble lately. After the devolution of the education sector to the provinces, the federal government that once funded colleges and universities has now no responsibility, apparently.

Where one could once get a BA or MA degree for almost free at public sector colleges and universities, now it costs the students hundreds of thousands rupees, especially in evening classes. Now these colleges and universities rely heavily on student money to run their affairs. The long-term impact of the financial crisis has not only made higher education increasingly unaffordable, but also impaired its quality. Students and their families now pay more for an inferior product. The situation – higher costs, lower quality – has created a weird love-hate relationship between the public and the public sector educational institutions. More than ever, higher education is perceived as crucial for both national and individual success, yet its apparent inability to deliver the goods occasions considerable hand wringing, as well as demands for accountability.

Within the increasingly stressed public sector, flagship universities can still replace the loss of the state funding with research grants, private gifts and higher out-of-state tuition. The less prestigious second- and third-tier public institutions and community colleges that harbour most of the nation’s undergraduates have fewer options and so are forced to perform major surgery on their core academic functions – while also raising the tuition fee.

Prof. Dr. Muhammad Ubaidullah, a senior faculty at a public sector university in Lahore, believes the federal government cannot escape responsibility by devolving education to the federating units. It must remain a central government field, especially higher education. Meeting financial needs of the institutions of higher education could keep them open to students coming from lower income groups. A long-term planning by the federal government in the field of higher education could keep the country relevant in the comity of nations as far as higher education is concerned. And if it tries to escape its responsibilities by cutting budgetary allocations for the sector, the future of higher education as well the country looks bleak, warns the professor.