Higher education, lower priorities

Higher education, lower priorities

According to a recent news report, the public sector universities in the country are compelled to raise its fee due to limited inflow of recurring grants. The various quarters of the government are advising the universities to generate more and more revenue on their own to become financially viable. But this cannot happen without burdening the students, most of whom come from lower to middle income groups.

One of the foremost problems that the higher education sector in the country is experiencing is the drying up of budgetary preferences that this vital sector enjoyed during the previous decade. With the opening of new public sector universities all across the country, including Sindh, the HEC is now faced with a far greater challenge to judiciously divide an even smaller pie of public finances among increased stakeholders. While the federal government seems content to inform the stakeholders about the limited financial space due to multiple reasons, the priorities and significance of higher education cannot be put to any sub-low level at this stage.

Priorities that the public sector universities have to address are several. Keeping the routines in higher education including hiring competent faculty, accepting new batches, overhauling spaces and educational hardware, scheduling for new facilities and initiating modest attempts towards expansion and upgradation are some of the core tasks that every performing institution of higher learning has to undertake.

It is common knowledge that the state universities conduct these important assignments in a bid to invest in the youth of the country to transform it into a productive resource. With a meagre budget allocation of less than Rs16 billion to be spread in more than six dozen public universities, it is not difficult to imagine the mismatch between need of funds and supply.

The reasons why the federal and provincial governments do not take appropriate measures in respect to shoring university finances are many. The prevailing uncertainty about controlling rights of higher education sector makes one reason. The provinces have interpreted, and also acted to take over the higher education sector as an assumed natural consequence of 18th constitutional amendment. There are many court cases that pose a challenge to this understanding. These cases are filed either by the core functionaries and academics that steered this sector in the past and believe that the better option is to retain HEC in its pristine form.

Surprisingly, the federal government has not come out with a clear cut policy, or even a political view on this count. Hence the budgeting for the sector is done in a half-hearted manner. Political wizards consider higher education as a sector that has a feeble connection with the future ballot box! In plain terms, investment in higher education has less physical visibility with rare possibility to muster populist momentum. They believe that mobilizing for a few metro bus projects in more important cities shall help fill up the emptiness of future electoral manifestoes than ‘wasting’ in the support of higher education! A few of the legislators have been victims of the scrutiny carried by HEC and universities in respect to degree verifications. This appraisal has not been favourably seen by the members of various legislatures, many of whom do not conceal their contempt towards centres of higher learning. Thus, the universities continue to suffer and limp with dry coffers!

It is time to press for a timely policy and mandate for HEC. The federal government may consider developing state-sponsored endowments for each of the public universities. Whereas the modalities and procedures may be worked out by the relevant quarters, this policy decision shall have several positive benefits. One, it will create an environment of certainty amongst the management of universities in respect to dealing with their pressing requirement. Two, it will also have an institutionalisation of fund raising and management in universities. Three, there will be possibilities to invite public spirited citizens and professionals to help the higher education sector by contributing their efforts and resources through these institutional channels. And four, many donors at national and international level shall be able to align themselves with human resources development in this country through these bodies.

It is important to remember that world renowned universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford have stable endowments that ensure continuity of research and outreach activities.

For enhancing their resource networks, the varsities must reach out to business and commercial sectors for forging meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships. The universities imparting professional education have the unique advantage of connecting with corporate houses. There are many corporations and groups that benefit from the universities in various ways. Induction of young professionals, conduct of basic events and even provision of technical advice are a few examples. An objective need analysis to examine the requirements could be the first step.

Under association with institutions such as chambers of commerce, collaborative links can be evolved. Assorted consultancy assignments, product development and extending innovative ideas to corporate sector are some of the possibilities. It must be realised that varsities shall soon be faced with a challenge to become financially self-sustaining. It will be useful also as they shall also become more independent in their outlook and academic conduct.

Higher education, lower priorities