The schema and concept of higher education, embedded in the minds of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) policymakers have started taking practical shape lately. It seems those at the helm of the party affairs have changed their approach towards the sector and now they treat higher education as a luxury, rather than an essential service, like the previous rulers.
Before coming to power, the party had always advocated more funding for the sector and declared it a top priority. But now as the party has been in power for the third year, there seems no change in the plight of the ever suffering sector, education. The country, comprising 220 million people with more than 1.8 million undergrad and graduation students enrolled in 135 public sector universities, allocated only Rs. 64 billion ($400 million) for its higher education in the financial year 2021. And only part of it was released and spent during the first half of the current year. If drawing any comparison can serve any purpose, authorities concerned may be reminded that an average American university spends eight times more than the entire country’s higher education budget. One of consequences of low allocations came to the fore recently when the teaching and administrative staff members of the University of Peshawar were informed through a notification last month that the administration would not be able to “disburse full salary to its employees for the month of January 2021 – and only basic pay, plus personal pay, will be disbursed”. Peshawar is the headquarters of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province where the party has been in power for the last eight years.
And by the way, what is the PTI’s policy on higher education? Regrettably, the political party has, so far, failed to draft a comprehensible policy framework that could specifically address the higher education sector, though currently it is in administrative control of larger parts of the country: in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa solely, and in the Centre and the population-wise largest province Punjab as a major coalition partner. The party’s governments in the Centre and provinces, in their annual plans, are guided by the vision and goals of the party’s 2018 election manifesto.
According to the party manifesto, education is part of the three Es – employment and engagement, being the remaining two – that were promised to young Pakistanis. The ruling party’s vision is in line with a “human capital” approach, similar to the Vision 2025, which had been drafted under the previous government of the Pakistan Muslim League-N. The annual plans 2019-20 and 2020-2021, as drafted by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, included a section on higher education, which could be seen as the best indicator of policy thinking and planning for the sector under the PTI.
The government’s higher education policy appears to be a continuity of the PML-N government’s Vision 2025 initiative. Under the policy, public sector universities have started facing the brunt of a financial crunch due to successive governments’ failure in allocating sufficient funds in the budget.
Tania Saeed, an assistant professor at the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS, and a member of the Progressive Academics Collective, says over a period of the past 10 years, development budget allocations for the Higher Education Commission (HEC) have not kept up pace with the growing needs of the sector. The higher education sector funding increased only Rs. 8 billion in the past 10 years, which was not sufficient to meet the needs of over 135 public sector universities.
In the fiscal year 2009-10, the then federal government had allocated Rs. 21.5 billion for the Higher Education Commission (HEC), which has increased to only Rs. 29.5 billion in fiscal year 2020-21, according to the Planning Commission. The record shows that the actual budget releases often fell behind allocations and there were always delays in releasing the funds to universities.
According to the official data, against Rs. 29.5 billion HEC allocation for the current fiscal year, the Ministry of Finance released only Rs. 11.5 billion worth of development budget during the first half. The released amount was only 34pc of the annual allocation, though the Ministry of Planning and Development had sanctioned Rs. 14 billion or 47pc of the allocation for the first half of the current fiscal year.
While public sector universities are facing financial issues in one way or the other, the releases against annual current budget allocation of Rs. 64 billion for the HEC remained just Rs. 35.3 billion, or 55pc of the total allocation. The slow releases, coupled with fewer allocations, have aggravated the fiscal situation in the public sector universities.
The successive governments during the past decade discouraged the aspirants of higher education through their policies and practical measures. The HEC development budget remained less than 5pc of the total federal development outlay. Out of Rs. 64 billion HEC budget, more than 80pc is spent on the salaries of universities’ employees. The remaining 20pc is spent on the students. Despite it, the universities have no funds and are getting loans to pay salaries. The HEC had requested Rs. 70,000 per student average grant from the government. However, according to the official documents, the HEC was allocated Rs. 56,349 per student. It is important to note that the HEC calculated the allocated amount without deducting the salaries of universities’ staff, which is more than 80pc of the total budget. It means only one fifth of the total HEC budget has been spent on students’ education.
As per the official documents, the HEC demanded Rs. 104 billion for the recurring expenditures and Rs. 42.6 billion for the development budget. However, the PTI government allocated only Rs. 64 billion for the fiscal year 2020-21.
With such a low funding, the universities have no budget to pay salaries to their staff. Some universities have taken loans, others have written to their employees that they could not pay full wages. The University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Lahore secured Rs. 300 million loan in December 2020, from the Punjab government to pay salaries. Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur is also facing the same problems. Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) Islamabad, the highest ranked university of Pakistan, as per official documents, has an annual budget of Rs. 2.5 billion. The university has around 2,000 employees including 300 faculty members. In July last year, the HEC reduced the QAU budget for the fiscal year 2020-21. QAU Vice Chancellor Prof. Dr. Muhammad Ali told the media recently that the university was facing a Rs. 800 million deficit because of the budget cuts.
The University of Peshawar crisis has already been mentioned. Ms. Ayesha Salman, finance director at the Peshawar University, expresses her helplessness in overcoming the financial issues of the institution. In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, she says the lack of funds forced the university administration last month (January 2021) to pay only basic salaries to the employees. She says “SOS communications” have been sent to the federal as well as KP provincial authorities for the provision of urgently required finances to meet the urgent need of salary payments. She says a number of employees refused to receive their salaries in parts, and they are protesting against non-payment of their wages in total.
She told Cutting Edge that there seemed no solution to the crisis even in February. She says the provincial government has promised to help meet the urgent needs, but with the advice of slashing the university expenditures and enhancing its dependence on its own resources.
The finance director stresses a special treatment and more finances for, at least, old institutions of higher learning which are called “mother universities”. “How come they can compare old universities with newly established universities, which do not need huge amounts for payment of pension to retired employees,” she asks.
The senior official says the university’s income has reduced drastically because of the pandemic and HEC policies. The student enrolment after the pandemic has drastically decreased. The opening of new universities in all divisions of the province has also affected the income of the Peshawar University, as the fee received from the students is a major source of its finances. She says public sector universities mainly cater to students with humble backgrounds, who cannot pay heavy fees of private universities. The universities can never be run through the fee collected from the students, or some other resources. She appealed to the HEC and the provincial higher education department to increase allocations for higher education, so that the centres of higher learning could focus on better education and research initiatives.