HEC budget cut: Is education even a priority?

It’s as if higher education was never a priority in their manifestos, and historical patterns suggest it never was.

Dr Imran Sabir May 31, 2024

The recent slashing of the Higher Education Commission's (HEC) budget by the federal government has left Pakistan’s higher education sector in disarray. Picture this: a government that expects its youth to lead the nation into a prosperous future, yet cuts the very budget that supports their education.

As of the new fiscal year, the recurrent budget for HEC has been slashed from Rs65 billion to a measly Rs25 billion. If you are wondering where the remaining billions evaporated, you are not alone. The decision has sparked outrage and confusion, highlighting a stark disconnection between governmental priorities and the actual needs of the educational sector.

The budget cuts are a catastrophic blow to over 160 public universities in Pakistan. These institutions had collectively requested Rs126 billion, an amount reflecting their genuine needs. The Planning Commission’s developmental budget has also been butchered from Rs59 billion to Rs21 billion. This financial strangulation has inevitably triggered emergency meetings among vice chancellors, with unanimous declarations that the budget cuts are disastrous for higher education in Pakistan. Let’s delve into why this is more than just numbers on a ledger.

HEC Chairman Dr Mukhtar Ahmed has confirmed receiving the official letters from the Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission. His reaction, understandably, was one of grave concern. The federal universities alone now have to stretch a budget that can barely keep the lights on, let alone fuel ambitious research projects or maintain academic standards. The cherry on top? The HEC can no longer fund provincial universities, which means the provinces must fend for themselves. Good luck with that, considering the financial state of most provincial governments.

The silence from significant political parties on this issue is deafening. It’s as if higher education was never a priority in their manifestos, and indeed, historical patterns suggest it never was. A country with 60% of its population under the age of 30 cannot afford to neglect education. The youth are not just the future; they are the present, demanding education and opportunities to drive the nation forward.

A colleague from Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) aptly noted that education has been “in the emergency” for a while now. The government's lackadaisical attitude towards higher education indicates a deeper, systemic apathy. We must ask ourselves: where exactly do we want to take a nation brimming with youthful potential, but bereft of educational support?

Let's not kid ourselves. Financial mismanagement is rampant within many universities, and it's about time we admitted it. Universities are not just victims of external budget cuts but also of internal inefficiencies. There are whispers, and sometimes loud allegations, of funds being diverted or misappropriated. If universities are to plead for more funds, they must also demonstrate financial responsibility.

Imagine getting your project approved, only to hear there are no finances available at the eleventh hour. It’s like expecting a fat paycheck but receiving an empty envelope. The recurring budget for federal universities, according to a member, needs to be scrutinised to understand how much was allotted last year versus the present. This would enable a more robust response from the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA).

Consider this: Rs25 billion for 24 federal universities. Do the math, and it becomes evident that it’s not enough to cover salaries, let alone other operational costs. Among these federal institutions are heavyweights like QAU, NUST, PIEAS, NDU, Bahria University, and many more, each with significant financial needs. The situation is akin to asking an elephant to subsist on crumbs.

While lamenting this situation, the discussion at QAU took an interesting turn when one professor highlighted how federal universities need not just a raise in their budgets but also foolproof management of said funds. A dual approach of seeking increased financial support while ensuring meticulous budget management is crucial. This is not rocket science, yet it seems to elude many in positions of power.

Interestingly, the Sindh government has been the only consistent player in allocating reasonable funds for higher education. In stark contrast, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) had a marginal allocation for universities in the 2024 budget. 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.

A professor summarised it well: vague political decisions always end up costing the public, exacerbating the politics of divide and rule. The inconsistency in funding across provinces is not just a financial issue; it’s a political one, highlighting the fragmented approach to education in Pakistan.

It’s no surprise that institutions of higher learning are struggling to contribute to the national economy. The government needs to not only increase the higher education budget but also develop a long-term, concrete plan. Every year, Pakistani universities improve their quantitative rankings, but their impact on educational or economic policies remains negligible.

As the country grapples with these budget cuts, it’s time for a reality check. Financial mismanagement within universities needs addressing, but so does the government's role in ensuring adequate funding. The political landscape must shift to prioritise education genuinely. Moreover, universities must prove their worth not just in numbers but in their tangible impact on society and the economy.

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. The youth of this nation deserve better, and it is our collective responsibility to fight for a robust, well-funded educational system that can propel Pakistan into a brighter future.

Dr Imran Sabir

The writer holds a Ph.D. in Sociology of Knowledge from the University of Paris-Saclay, France. As an Associate Professor at the School of Sociology, Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, he is deeply invested in exploring the dynamics of knowledge production and dissemination in contemporary societies. His research interests encompass interdisciplinary learning, higher education, and the impact of technology on society.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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