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May 12, 2021

Tough challenges

Universities in Pakistan have suffered greatly in the last three years because of the misguided policies of the Higher Education Commission and the failure of its leadership to convince the government to provide proper and reasonable funding.

The operational budget of the HEC has remained frozen since 2017, causing huge damage to the higher education sector. It was Rs63.18 bln in 2017-18, Rs65.02 bln in 2018-19, Rs64.10 bln 2019-20 and Rs64.10 bln in 2020-21. The grant per student enrolled has collapsed in dollar terms, which is relevant as research students spend most of the university funds for imported chemicals, solvents and equipment. It was $782 in the year 2013-14, but is now only $413 per student after seven years, although inflation and other factors should have led to its doubling in this seven-year period to about $1600 per student.

As a percentage of GDP our expenditure on higher education is a dismal 0.23 percent of our GDP. Since our total expenditure on education is about 2.4 percent of our GDP, so we spend only about 10 percent of the total education budget on higher education, while the international norm is 25-30 percent. A minimum three-fold increase in the higher education budget is therefore needed by internal adjustment, even if the total allocation to the higher education sector is not increased.

The complete freezing of the higher education operational budget for four years, while salaries, electricity, gas, and other costs kept increasing annually, represents criminal neglect of this vitally important sector by all concerned. Universities need to import chemicals, solvents, equipment and spare parts etc all from abroad, but the devaluation of the Pak rupee against the dollar by about 40 percent in this period placed further financial pressures. The result has been a rapid and serious deterioration of the university environment, disillusionment of bright young faculty about their future, and a sharp decrease in quality research.

The result of this financial stifling of our universities has been devastating. A large number of scholars sent abroad with huge government funding refused to return to the barren research environment now prevailing in our universities. Many who had returned decided to leave Pakistan and take up careers abroad. There can be no greater tragedy for a nation than its brightest young faculty members leaving their country for greener pastures elsewhere because Pakistan cannot offer proper jobs or a stimulating research environment.

The single most important factor that determines high quality education is qualified faculty. With about 1.4 million students in the higher education sector, our PhD level faculty is very small in number, the ratio of students to PhD level faculty is a poor 100:1. It should be 10:1, or at least 20:1. So there was an urgent need to train our brightest students in top universities abroad as there is an immediate need of about 100,000 PhD level faculty members in our universities today.

The foreign scholarship programmes were badly mauled during the last three years and the quality of education plummeted. Despite thousands of scholarships available to the HEC, this programme was allowed to collapse. This is illustrated by the fact that the HEC had sent about 1200 students abroad in 2008 when I was chairman, but the number sent during the last three years has been a couple of hundred annually; one sure way to destroy the higher education sector is to reduce the quality of the serving faculty.

But the foreign scholarships programme was only one of a large number of programmes that were completely derailed. On the pretence of restructuring and reorganisation, a huge mess was created with almost all programmes severely disrupted. Stakeholders were not consulted by the HEC hierarchy and half-cooked solutions developed for important educational matters. The resulting huge chaos and turmoil in the higher education sectors will now be hard to fix. For example, the National Research Program for Universities (NRPU) which used to support a large number of research projects was severely curtailed.

Similarly, other excellent programmes that now need to be resurrected and revived include those for Postdoctoral Fellowships, Pakistan Educational Research Network (digital library), the national curriculum revision, the university ranking system, Open Access to Scientific Instruments, Travel Grants Programme for faculty and research students, the tenure track salary structure, faculty visits from foreign universities, national PhD programmes, and a host of others. A complete mess was made of the phasing out of the two-year bachelors and masters programmes and changes in the HEC recruitment rules.

On the positive side, there have been some exciting developments too in the higher education sector due to the independent activities and programmes of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Knowledge Economy. As a result of these wide-ranging programmes, the development budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology has increased by more than 400 percent and there have been substantial increases too in the budget of the Ministry of IT/Telecom.

The Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering has been set up within a short three-year period in collaboration with 3 Austrian and 5 Chinese Universities in Haripur, Hazara. This is the first university in Pakistan with such a strong international collaboration. I also persuaded the Punjab government to set up a similar university in Sialkot, and a project of about Rs17 billion has been recently approved by the Punjab government. A third university in the land behind the PM House should also be approved soon. We owe our thanks to the new secretary MoST for now taking it forward under his able stewardship.

A project of Rs6 billion has been approved for the Virtual University Lahore to expand distance education across the country. Some 26 large projects covering school education, technical education, higher education, information technology etc have been approved and they have started to transform the country into a knowledge based economy.

The situation that exists today in the HEC will take years to set right. The recently appointed acting chairperson has a tough job ahead of him.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

Email: [email protected]