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Financial concerns mount as recurring budget for public varsities remains stagnant

By Khalid Khattak
July 18, 2023

LAHORE:Public sector universities in Pakistan are grappling with financial uncertainty as VCs and other stakeholders voice their alarm over the lack of an increase in the recurring budget for higher education in the budget for the new fiscal year.

During a recent virtual meeting, which was also attended by the HEC chairman, the university heads shared their concerns regarding the financial challenges posed by a surge in student enrolment and the inflation impact. Of particular concern is the unchanging recurring budget which, according to them, left universities struggling to manage salary and pension increases.

Numerous public sector universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) across Pakistan have been making headlines due to their struggles in meeting salary obligations to their faculty and staff.

The University of Balochistan (UoB), Quetta which was established in 1970, experienced frequent closures due to employee protests over non-payment. This issue persisted throughout the latter part of last year and continued until April. The financial difficulties faced by the oldest institution of higher education in Balochistan highlighted the financial challenges.

Talking to The News, UoB VC Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman said that while the HEC’s recurring budget remained stagnant over the years, the number of new universities kept increasing in the country. “This means while the recurring budget remains stagnant, the share of universities in the budget gets lower”, he said and added it was only after intervention of the government of Balochistan, the UoB was able to pay salaries to its employees recently this year.

Dr Shafiq emphasised that despite the significant inflation rates, the university continued to provide subsidised education and transportation services to its students. He highlighted the university’s commitment to ensuring accessible education for students, even in challenging economic circumstances. Additionally, in the aftermath of the 2022 flood, the university had to comply with the government’s decision to waive off fees for affected students, further demonstrating its dedication to supporting the community in times of crisis.

In Sindh, among other universities Quaid-e-Awam University of Engineering, Science & Technology (QUEST) Nawabshah, also faced difficulties in disbursing salaries. For the month of May 2023, the university had to resort to a three-part payment plan, with the salaries being distributed in installments of 25%, 30%, and 45% respectively.

It is pertinent to mention that the federal government in its budget allocated a recurring budget of Rs65bn to HEC which is the same as allocated during the last year. The HEC had demanded a recurring budget of Rs104 billion.

Talking to The News, Quaid-e-Awam University Teachers Association (QUTA) president Dr Baqir Zardari expressed his concern about the lack of hope for the employees of QUEST Nawabshah regarding the payment of salaries and pensions for the month of June. Despite announcements made across the country regarding timely payments before Eid-ul-Adha, the employees of QUEST did not have any indication of receiving their payments, he added.

Dr Zardari, who is also secretary general of the Sindh chapter of Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA), said that owing to the lack of recurring grants by the HEC universities, particularly in Sindh, were facing a financial crisis. He went on to say that besides QUEST Nawabshah, other big universities like Shah Abdul Latif University (SALU) Khairpur and Sindh Agriculture University (SAU) Tando Jam were also facing financial problems.

QUTA president, however, appreciating the Sindh government said that the Sindh government was always there to support public universities in the time of financial crisis. Dr Zardari further said the Sindh government had offered bailout packages to different universities by offering grant-in aid. He added owing to special efforts of Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho, QUEST Nawabshah would soon be able to get a grant-in aid of Rs200 million from the Sindh government.

Prof Dr Muhammad Ramzan who is VC of the newly established Emerson University Multan told The News that in the recent meeting the VCs expressed their concerns on shrinking budgets of higher education through HEC and provincial HED as the cost of all developmental infrastructure and equipment has gone manifold.

‘Moreover, the salaries and benefits of faculty and staff were increased by 30-35%,’ he said and questioned ‘How will universities manage to pay their salaries?’ Dr Ramzan went on to say that public sector universities could not raise tuition fees as the affordability of parents had declined owing to inflation. The VC said the meeting had reached a consensus that the government should focus on strengthening the existing universities, especially the newly-established universities rather than opening new universities.

Dr Ramzan said that despite the lack of funding and salaries of VCs being lower than many government officials, our universities were performing better and were being ranked internationally.

It is important to mention that many universities from KP, particularly the University of Peshawar had been in the limelight for being unable to pay salaries to their staff. However, for Prof Dr Rashid Ahmad, VC of University of Malakand, it is a matter of liabilities. “Old universities have more liabilities as compared to the new universities”, he said and added that despite inflation the University of Malakand, being a relatively new university, was in a stable condition.

Prof Dr Muhammad Naeem Khan is VC of University of Baltistan, Skardu (UoBS), Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan which was established in 2017. Talking to The News, Prof Khan said UoBS, with its minimum establishment, was in a comfortable situation as far as its expenses were concerned. According to him, the VC office consists of one driver and one PS only that too is shared with the IT and Registrar office. ‘I myself work on my computer and we are e-university so we don’t have the old file system,’ he added.

University of the Punjab’s Engr Prof Dr Azhar Naeem, who is president of the university’s Academic Staff Association, while talking about financial pressure on the university said that only PU’s annual electricity bill was now Rs800 million which was somewhere between Rs250 to Rs300 million a couple of years back.

Prof Azhar Naeem, who is also FAPUASA Punjab chapter president, said HEC’s recurring budget was stagnant for almost four years now whereas rupees sharply depreciated against dollar within just a few months. In this backdrop, the HEC’s recurring budget was in fact today one third of what it used to be a couple of years back, he added. He said the university’s student body had grown from 30,000 to over 48,000 on-campus students over the years which means there were more teachers to cater to their needs as in the past. But there was no increase in the HEC’s recurring budget, he added.