The HEC in crisis | Dr Atta-ur-Rahman

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In a shattering blow to Pakistan’s higher education sector, the finance ministry has slashed the development budget of all universities of Pakistan by more than 60 percent. The original budget allocated for the higher education sector in 2016-2017 was Rs21.48 billion. But only Rs8.42 billion has been released.

The funds were diverted towards other pet transportation schemes and left the universities of Pakistan in a shocking state of disarray, with contractors chasing vice-chancellors for funds to complete work on half-constructed buildings.

This is the lowest allocation to the higher education sector since 2004 – even lower than what the previous PPP-led government had allocated. The only ray of hope in this otherwise depressing scenario is the constant support shown by Ahsan Iqbal to the higher education sector and the valiant efforts made by Professor Mukhtar Ahmed to keep the HEC from completely collapsing due to a lack of development funds. This puts to shame the commitments made by the PML-N government to give priority to education.

The lack of funds within the HEC has resulted in the slashing of many important programmes that were vital to improving the quality of education. The most important of these initiatives involved training the faculty at top universities by sending them abroad. Until 2008, the HEC would send about 1,000 students abroad every year for higher studies so that it could develop a critical mass of highly-trained faculty members and bring the ratio of the PhD level faculty to students from 1:130 to 1:20. However the foreign training programme has collapsed and only 250 students were sent abroad in the previous financial year.

This situation has been further aggravated through the establishment of about 50 new universities by the federal and provincial governments. The expansion of the number of universities without hiring a qualified faculty is ineffective. Such measures only receive superficial applause at public functions where announcements are made in an effort to grab votes and create a false illusion that the education sector is being promoted. It lowers standards even further and spreads mediocrity.

After a remarkable period of progress between 2003 and 2008 – when several of our universities were featured in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings among the top 300, 400 and 500 institutes in the world – we have seen a constant decline over the last 10 years. We do not have a single university today that falls within the top 500 of the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings. In the QS rankings, NUST was ranked at 376 in 2008. But its ranking has also fallen and the institute stood within the 500-550 range in the 2016 rankings.

Attempts are being made to cover up this decline by highlighting Asian rankings or subject rankings instead of world rankings. However, the truth cannot be hidden. All our universities have been consistently falling behind in terms of their world rankings since 2008 and there are no signs of improvement. This is largely due to the lack of support from the government. The situation is so bad that that the budget of a good Asian university – such as the National University of Singapore – is about three times the total budgets of all our public sector universities taken together.

In addition to the collapse of the faculty development programme, we have also witnessed a sharp decline in international patents from universities because of the lack of funding from the HEC to support a patent fee. As compared to 13 patents filed in 2015, only one patent could be filed internationally (USPTO) during 2016. This highlights the extent of the crisis.

Research has also been badly affected with the budget constraints. Projects submitted to the HEC over a year ago are still awaiting approval. The programme to support free access to sophisticated instruments among researchers (with the bills for the analyses being paid by the HEC) has also collapsed. The number of analyses that have been carried out under this programme declining by over 90 percent.

The digital library programme initiated in 2005 – which provided free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks – has also witnessed a sharp decline and there are fewer high quality journals and search engines available. There are many other HEC programmes that have also been severely affected due to the lack of development funds.

These problems are compounded by the formation of provincial higher education commissions both in Sindh and Punjab. This has resulted in a chaotic administrative situation, with three authorities – one on the federal level and the other two on the provincial level – trying to exercise their muscles over universities.

Higher education is a federal subject across the world because of its role in maintaining national standards, the international equivalence of degrees, quality assurance and national planning. The provincial HECs were set up in open defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision on my petition – which maintained that higher education was a federal subject. The Supreme Court had decided that it had not been devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment.

The provinces should have tried to improve the status of colleges instead of creating new bodies to govern universities. To resolve the matter, I – along with Marvi Memon – filed a petition in the Sindh High Court in February 2013 against the formation of the provincial HEC. But four-and-a-half years have elapsed and no decision has been made by the Sindh High Court. It is in the public interest that this case should be taken up as a priority by the Sindh High Court. This will ensure that the decision already made by the Supreme Court about the federal nature of higher education is respected and implemented.

The rapid progress made between 2003 to 2008 – which was billed as “the golden period for higher education” by Senator Razina Alam – rang alarm bells in India. However, India should not be concerned as the enemies of Pakistan lie within it. The best way to destroy a country is to destroy its education sector.

I have been repeatedly emphasising the importance of transitioning towards a knowledge economy through my articles. This is the only way that we can lift ourselves out of the quagmire of poverty and deprivation. The drastic financial cuts in the development budget of the higher education sector have dealt a fatal blow to the HEC’s programmes. The government needs to understand that we live in an age where knowledge has become the single most important factor for socio-economic development.

Natural resources have lost their importance and been replaced by quality human resources that contribute towards high-tech industrial development. Following the drastic cuts in the higher education budget, we are slowly spiraling downwards into an abyss.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC.

Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com