Islamabad – The Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) government is facing criticism not only from the opposition and academia but also from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for slashing higher education spending in the 2019-20 federal budget.
The HEC claims it has received half the budgetary allocation it had requested.
HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri told Media for Transparency that the federal government has allocated Rs. 59 billion instead of the Rs. 103.5 billion budget estimate shared by the commission when the budget was being finalised.
The HEC had demanded Rs. 55 billion for development expenditures but only received Rs. 28 billion, Mr. Banuri said.
“On the development side, the budget is hardly enough to cover the ongoing schemes let alone new ones,” Mr. Banuri said.
The chairman said HEC is a growing entity and is responsible for recruiting professors, building university campuses, and providing facilities for universities. A reduced budget allocation could potentially inhibit these functions.
Currently the commission is running 136 development projects across the country, according to official documents. These projects include up-gradation of different university campuses and student scholarships at different levels.
Budget cuts in the past have affected HEC-funded foreign scholarships.
Safwan Akram, a biotechnology scientist who did his PhD from Cambridge University, is one of the scholars affected by the HEC budget cuts by the Pakistan People’s Party government in 2008. Mr. Akram, who currently teaches at Teesside University in the UK, said many Pakistani scholars studying on HEC scholarships were forced to abandon their doctoral studies due to the delay in funds. He said a similar situation could arise due to the present government’s actions.
HEC has asked universities to undertake cost-cutting measures and look for other funding resources, Mr. Banuri said. He said these measures will take time to enforce and, in the meanwhile, some HEC programmes are likely to be adversely affected.
“We will try to avoid drastic measures, but some fee increase will be necessary because of inflation and other cost increases,” he said.
The tuition fee increase might affect enrollment of university students.
“Only a small percentage of Pakistanis currently enrol at university level,” Faisal Bari, an educationist and associate professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, wrote in a newspaper column in May. “If the fee is increased, it will restrict numbers on the margins and the rise will, inevitably, hit the poorer students more.”
The PTI government contends that the budget reduction is not significant.
“HEC officials are portraying as we are in a crisis situation which is not a fact,” Wajiha Akram, a PTI Member National Assembly and Parliamentary Secretary on Education, said. “There is a very small difference if we compare this year’s allocations for last year’s HEC expenditures.”
She claimed the government has not cut the HEC’s recurrent expenditures, such as salaries, and the federal cabinet is discussing a potential increase in allocation for the commission.
Ms. Wajiha Akram said the HEC received Rs. 30 billion for development sector in the previous fiscal year and Rs. 28 billion this year. The number contradicts the statistic announced by revenue minister Hammad Azhar when he presented the federal budget in the National Assembly on 11 June.
“For higher education record funds of Rs 43 billion are proposed to (sic) for an important sector,” Mr. Azhar stated in his federal budget speech.
Atta ur Rahman, the Chairman of Prime Minister’s Task Force on Science and Technology, explained the discrepancy. He said the government has allocated nearly Rs. 13.5 billion for work on “knowledge economy”. He said some of these funds will also be used for projects at universities.
“If we see the holistic picture, the government has allocated 20 to 25 percent more budget for higher education,” Mr. Rahman, who is a former HEC chairman himself, said.
He did admit that the HEC’s development focus will be affected by the direct budget cuts. However, he added that other federal ministries, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology, also have development budgets that can supplement the HEC’s work.
The PTI government came into power in 2018 with the promises of increasing spending on public education. But its reforms agenda appears to have hit a snag due to the country’s economic downturn.
“The government is committed to taking necessary actions and providing funds for uplift of the education sector in Pakistan,” Ms. Wajiha Akram, the PTI legislator, said. “These are difficult economic times and as the situation will get better more resources will be provided for the education sector.”