On April 19, a special meeting of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was held in Islamabad. University officials from all over the country attended the meeting via video link. It was revealed in the meeting that in the fiscal year 2018-19 the total recurring expenditures of HEC were Rs91.9 billion and the federal government only provided a grant of Rs65 billion. For 2019-20, HEC expenditures are expected to touch Rs103.5 billion and the finance division has revealed HEC would only get Rs58.5 billion. The federal government is paying HEC 45 percent less than its required expenditures, which will drastically affect higher education in the entire country.
The federal government is using the ‘financial crisis’ as a justification for cutting down expenditure for higher education. Last year, the grant paid to HEC was Rs65 billion and for next year, the government plans to cut it by 10 percent. The same is the case with development expenditures of HEC – the expected demand is Rs55 billion, and the government is not willing to pay more than Rs28 billion. In 2018, Pakistan was spending 0.26 percent of the GDP on higher education, and now this figure will fall even further.
A copy of the proceedings of the April 19 meeting is available with this scribe. According to this document, the HEC asked universities that “unprecedented reduction in recurring funding will necessitate a few or all of the following eight measures: first, moratorium on new scholarship programs which will affect 21,000 students; second, doubling tuition fees in public sector universities; third, stringent cuts in new admissions; fourth, a moratorium on the construction of new universities and sub-campuses; fifth, a ban on admissions in all universities opened in the last three years; sixth, ban on new recruitments in universities; seventh, cessation of funding for research; eighth, renegotiation of co-funded foreign scholarships programs with World Bank and British Council.”
Talking to this scribe, HEC spokesperson Ayesha Ikram denied the aforementioned measures. “No HEC scholarship, at any level, has been discontinued or suspended,” she said. She said no university had been asked to raise tuition fee. She said the HEC had been encouraging universities to generate resources, in addition to government funding, so as to minimize the burden on students.
Meanwhile, in Quetta, a group of students has come together under Restore HEC Funding. These are students who will be affected by funding cuts to higher education. These students are studying at various universities of Balochistan and their fee was covered by the Prime Minister’s Fee Reimbursement Scheme.
In 2013, the PML-N government launched this scheme. According to data available on the website, 152,798 students have benefitted from this scheme between 2013 and 2015. At least 28,468 of them came from Balochistan. This scheme covered fees of students from the under-developed regions of the country and it was a blessing for students of Balochistan. Apparently, the PTI government has suspended this scheme. An official of a higher education institute privy to the matter told this scribe on condition of anonymity that the PTI government has closed this scheme since coming to power.
Now, students whose fees were covered by this scheme have received notices from their universities to pay their dues as the universities are no longer being paid to let them study for free. They have been asked to deposit up to Rs60,000. If they fail to do so, they will not be allowed to continue their education.
As a result, students have started a social media campaign and also begun protesting in front of Quetta Press Club. They meet leaders of political parties to pressurize the federal government to reverse its decision. They are spending their entire time campaigning on this matter at the expense of their studies. These students have been distracted from their studies and they are the first casualty of the flawed policy of cutting costs of higher education.
Moreover, universities in Balochistan will be the biggest victims of the change of policy by the federal government. In the fiscal year 2018-19, the total required expenditures of public sector universities in Balochistan were Rs4.594 billion. HEC only provided Rs2.81 billion and the remainder was covered with the help of borrowing, provincial government grants and revenue generation by university administrations. In 2019-20, expenditures of universities in Balochistan will increase whereas the HEC grant will decrease. This will further reduce breathing space for universities in Balochistan and they will find it extremely hard even to finance their day-to-day operations.
Lately, the PTI government has been facing severe criticism for bad governance and poor economic management. However, the decision to cut down funding for higher education is akin to shooting one’s own foot. By taking this decision, the government has provided people and the opposition a lively issue to bash it on. This decision of the PTI directly affects students who were part of its support base in the build-up to the election. Now that the PTI has alienated the youth, it can expect vigorous protests from them, which will further aggravate things for the government.
Pakistan was already not doing well in terms of higher education and the decision to cut down its funding will be catastrophic. The final decision of funding for the HEC will be made in the upcoming budget to be presented in June. There is still time for the PTI government to avoid making this erroneous decision. Expenditure in higher education is an investment in the economic growth of the country. Therefore, Prime Minister Imran Khan should overrule his financial managers and order an increase in funding for higher education rather than cutting it.
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