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Friday June 21, 2024

Stagnant funds, unnecessary expansion & pension burden blamed for varsities crisis

By Yousaf Ali
May 21, 2024
Prof Dr Qaiser Ali, VC of the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Peshawar speaks during an event at UET Peshawar on May 2, 2024. — Facebook/University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar
Prof Dr Qaiser Ali, VC of the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Peshawar speaks during an event at UET Peshawar on May 2, 2024. — Facebook/University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar

PESHAWAR: The stagnant funding by the government for the past eight years despite salary increases, unnecessary expansion of universities for alleged political motives, and heavy pension burdens have been termed the real causes behind the worsened financial crisis in the public sector universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“The autonomy of the public sector universities can never be blamed for the serious financial challenges. The autonomy gives the universities some operational freedoms, but it requires adequate funding and support, which have been lacking”, said Prof Dr Qaiser Ali, vice-chancellor of the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Peshawar, in an interview about the pressing problems faced by public sector universities in the province.

Dr Qaiser Ali is a leading academician with exemplary knowledge of structure and earthquake engineering. He is the founder of the Earthquake Engineering Center at the UET Peshawar, which is a unique center in the country.

Regarding the complaints of alleged nepotism in the hiring practices in public sector universities in comparison with other public sector institutions, he said that nepotism existed across all sectors, not just universities.

“However, universities often enforce strict hiring processes in a transparent and competitive manner, frequently involving external oversight to ensure fairness. Comparatively, universities strive to maintain higher standards of meritocracy than other public bodies,” he said.

About the alleged illegality of the allowances provided to university staff, he said the issue of illegal allowances mostly arose from the alignment issues between federal and provincial regulations after the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

Universities are working to adjust their compensation structures to comply with provincial standards, which is more about regulatory compliance than financial mismanagement, he explained.

Elaborating on the rationale behind the brain drain allowance at the University of Engineering and Technology Peshawar, the vice-chancellor said that the specific allowance had been introduced to retain highly qualified faculty who were vital for maintaining educational standards of the leading seat of engineering education in the province.

“It represents a strategic use of funds, constituting only 2 percent of UET’s budget and funded through internally generated income, not government fundings or student fees,” he pointed out.

To a question as to whether professors have the capabilities to manage universities’ affairs effectively, Dr Qaiser Ali said that many professors not only possess academic expertise but also valuable administrative experience.

Their deep understanding of educational challenges often makes them more effective in managing universities than external administrators who might lack context-specific knowledge, he opined.

Of the effects of funds allocation on the quality of education and research in universities, he said the underfunding of higher education, where less than 0.5 percent of the national budget is allocated to over 100 universities, directly affects the quality of education and research. It is unrealistic to expect high-quality outcomes without adequate funding, he added.

About the rankings of Pakistani universities compared with other national institutions and internationally, Dr Qaiser Ali said that despite financial constraints, Pakistani universities often outperform other national institutions in global rankings. This relative success demonstrates their capability and efficiency even under challenging conditions, he reiterated.

Speaking about his expectations from the new government about university management and funding, the UET vice-chancellor seemed satisfied with the appointment of the minister for higher education, who according to him, was knowledgeable and proactive and he would hopefully introduce meaningful reforms.

He said that his expectations from the new government included improved funding models and support for university autonomy to better address the current challenges.About the prolonged process and delay in the vice-chancellors’ appointment of several universities in the province, he said that there was no such issue in UET Peshawar where things were managed smoothly.

However, it was purely the domain of the provincial government, which has given a detailed version about it duly published in the media. Suggesting some innovative solutions to alleviate financial pressures on universities, he said introducing education cards for students could provide crucial financial support, similar to health cards.

Additionally, creating a pension endowment fund would help manage pension costs more sustainably, freeing up resources for educational and research activities, he proposed.