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July 4, 2019

Making sense of education budget

Islamabad

July 4, 2019

Charles Dickens’ description of ambivalence in his famous lines ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’ best fits the present times when no one knows what to do as no one is able to make sense of what is going on around them. Ironically, the more you talk to university professors, who are supposed to light the dark alleys, the more you find a loss of direction.

However, there is one man who still has it in him and who knows how to wade through murky waters. He is Dr Tariq Banuri, chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). After the recent unthinkable budgetary cuts on higher education, I have talked to many university managers and was disappointed to see that they have consumed all their energies putting out justifications for it e.g. higher education should be priced higher; universities were not producing quality scholars or why everyone has to get higher education at all et al.

But Dr Banuri was candid and clinical describing that the current allocation of Rs88 billion against the total demand of Rs158.5 billion is 45 per cent less than needed, which is creating many problems. He is hopeful that situation will improve soon. “No one in the government has a second opinion on the need for resources to be used on education. I have talked to the education minister, others and even the finance minister. The prime minister, the president, economic advisers, Sania Nishtar ...they all understand it and expressed it in different meetings,” he told me in his cozy office. He laughed at my next question as to who has then cut the budget for education when they all understand its importance. “It is like Ibne Safi’s novel. No one knows who,” he said in a lighter tone.

He said given the current crisis, need for investing more in education is very pressing as our future depends on it. “It will be not wrong if I say that our education investment is very less compared to other countries of the world. This year, we have got 10 per cent less recurring and 20 per cent less development budget than the last year. We will keep on bringing out need for resources for the sake of the country’s future and I hope that sense will prevail and we may get more resources, be it in the shape of supplementary grant or reversal of some budgetary measures.”

He dispelled the impression that higher education goals were unsustainable and this budget is done a correcting act. He said, “If someone says so, they should introduce themselves to the facts. Had we enhanced our education investment more than others, then we could have imagined that this budget is a correcting step. When we are spending on education the least of all, how is it logical to say that we should make it even less than that?”

He said all that is being reported in media is not factual. “We had forewarned universities about the cut so that they do not take it for a surprise. They now have to make logical decisions,” he said. “Due to the cut, hiring of new faculty will be stopped, which means the number of new admissions will also decrease while our population is increasing,” he said.

He said Rs75 billion development projects are going on. Rs15 billion will go into laying out fiber optic cable, giving digital access to data to universities and conducting problem-oriented research.

Some people are playing politics claiming that research budget has plummeted but in fact we have not reduced the research budget. He said he has a background in generating donations from overseas Pakistanis but it has a limit.

He said Pakistani government is giving $300 per student per year while in Europe many countries are giving $2,500, even Indian government is giving over $1,000 per student per year. He said public universities are meant to provide education to those who cannot afford it. Dr Banuri was objective and full of purpose. He did not let bickering professors influence his vision about the future of this country. His media director Aysha Ikram was also very professional and very mindful of the schedule. The good thing about her is that she understands journalism and does not insist on giving a twist to any fact. After the meeting, a friend asked me how did he sound, and my reply was he sounds like the last man standing.

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