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June 27, 2019

More budget cuts


June 27, 2019

The government’s austerity programme has claimed an unexpected victim: the higher education sector. The HEC has lost a major chunk on its funding in Budget 2019-20 with an allocation of around Rs29 billion, which is almost 20 percent less than last year. Word from public-sector universities is that they are effectively supposed to generate their own funds, instead of relying on the HEC. Academic staff and student associations have raised their concerns about the ability to conduct research as well as the fate of many HEC scholarship programmes. Already, the situation of the HEC budget last year was dire. The government allocated Rs45 billion for the HEC, but this was shrunk to Rs36 billion by the interim government. However, actual budget documents show that only around Rs21 billion was actually released for 2018-19. It is clear that there will be no development budget available for the higher education sector in Pakistan this year. Many varsities rely on the HEC to generate around half of their annual budget, as well as receiving development funds to expand their campus facilities. This means we can not only expect cuts in scholar schemes, but also fee hikes across the board in public-sector universities.

There is little question that the future of the country is connected to education. Budget cuts of around 50 percent are expected in universities. The government has managed to delay a call for protests by claiming that the Ministry of Science and Technology will start new research programmes – but scepticism is likely to rise if the money does not turn up. The fact that higher education is such a low priority for the government should be cause for serious concern. Tall promises have been made from the PM House of opening new universities in each district, but the idea that universities raise private funding itself is a non-starter. The role of public-sector universities is to provide subsidised education to help qualified youth enter the job market. Tuition fees do not cover the costs and the HEC covers the gap. This is how public-sector education is supposed to work. Already, only a small percentage of young people in Pakistan enrol in universities. Fee hikes would push poorer students out. The government would do well to realise how important education is for Pakistan’s future. The higher education budget cannot be cut – especially in times of austerity.

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