Neglect of higher education will be suicidal

EDITORIAL (September 24 2010): Failure to resolve the ongoing tussle between the public sector universities and the finance ministry led the universities to close their doors last Tuesday in response to the announcement by their vice chancellors. That it brought about an immediate response from the government to reverse the cuts in their budgets, though welcome, is a sad testament to the fact that response of governments in Pakistan is directly proportional to the pressure applied.

Last week, when the finance minister denied the funds requested by the cash-strapped Higher Education Commission (HEC), the VCs announced they would consider resigning en bloc if the step-motherly treatment to higher education was not stopped. It was maintained that if the HEC does not get adequate funds, some 4,000 students abroad may have to be called back before they get their degrees.

At another meeting between the VCs committee and Deputy Chairman Planning Commission on Tuesday, no agreement could be reached on the educationists’ demand of the release of Rs 7 billion. Other demands put up by the universities included a raise in salaries equal to the increase promised to government servants, plus a 15 percent hike in medical allowance. The reduction in funds for the HEC caused by the finance ministry’s measures is bound to have a negative impact on higher education.

We have been told that it would not be possible this year to send any student abroad for the PhD programmes. Universities have also been told not to undertake any development projects this year. The Federation of Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Associations has declared Wednesday as a black day and called on teachers to observe a token strike on the day.

In Lahore, faculty members of the Punjab University and the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) are going to hold a demonstration against the funding cuts in the budget of the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

The development of higher education was always required to turn Pakistan into an enlightened and modern country as visualised by its founding fathers. The need has increased all the more on account of recent trends in the world economy, where low-skill industrial production is fast giving way to knowledge-intensive production and services. Investment in higher education has thus become a national priority.

What is required is a multidimensional increase in the capacities of our universities. First, the standards of the universities have to be raised by hiring and maintaining well-qualified academic staff. There is a need for state-of-the-art labs and up-to-date libraries to cater to research requirements. A peaceful, politics-free environment combined with academic freedom is another pre-requisite. Again the universities have to produce hundreds, if not thousands, of PhDs every year to cater to the research needs of the knowledge-intensive industries and of national defence.

Taking timely note of the emerging trends in modern industry, countries like China and India planned two decades back to develop first class universities with advanced capacities. In China, all the universities are in the public sector, whereas in India public sector universities continue to play a key role.

Two years back China announced the plan to develop 100 world standard universities and for this, hired scores of teachers, mostly of Chinese origin, from the top world universities and research bodies. Unless higher education is given priority in Pakistan and provided necessary funds the required breakthrough cannot be made. While there are a number of areas where Musharraf-era policies can be rubbished, it goes to his government’s credit that it took decisions regarding higher education that served the country well.

Among these was the establishment of the HEC in 2002, which was tasked to concentrate on the issue. The development budget for higher education increased from Rs 500 million in 1998-99 to Rs 14.4 billion, in 2006-07. This led to an increase in the number of universities, in both the private and public sector, from 59 in 2001-02 to 132 in 2008-09.

The number of students enrolled in 2001-02 was 276,274 which increased to 948,364 in 2009-10. The number of PhDs produced by Pakistani universities increased sharply, from 176 in 2000 to 624 in 2009. The argument advanced in support of the reduction in funding for higher education is that the country needs to divert every penny that it can save to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster caused by the floods.

The government is no doubt facing a problem of gigantic multitude and attempts need to be made to stop wastage and reduce unnecessary expenditures. Billions of rupees of subsidies to government sector white elephants have to be cut by urgently privatising them. The reduction in higher education allocations however is more a matter of priorities than of floods alone. Last year the axe had fallen on funds for higher education on the ground that a rise in the defence budget was required to establish the writ of the state in the tribal areas.

It is ironic that while expenses on the presidency and prime minister house have continued to increase despite warning last month by the finance minister, who had called for reduction in spending by government departments, both civilian and military, the budget for higher education continues to be reduced. It is, in fact, not a matter of the floods alone. The development budgets of the universities have been consistently slashed over the last three years – down from Rs 33.4 billion in 2006-07 to a figure calculated by some to be as low as Rs 8-9 billion in 2010-11.

During the last financial year, the government released only Rs 11.5 billion under the development grants against a commitment of Rs 18.5 billion. During the current financial year, Rs 15.7 billion only have been earmarked for the development of universities. As a result, around 300 development schemes have been affected adversely. While the government has to realise that education should be among the last rather than first sectors, for cuts at times of need, the vice chancellors too have to pay attention to raising academic standards and to making the campuses politics-free. What is more, tendencies among academicians to act like trade union leaders have to be discouraged and shutdowns of campuses avoided – Brecorder