Pakistan funding cuts ‘disastrous’ for universities

Scholars say cuts to Higher Education Commission’s budget will drive academic brain drain

July 1, 2019
Source: Getty
Dire warnings ‘if applied across the board, the large cuts in the HEC budget will indeed be disastrous’

Moves by the Pakistan government to cut higher education funding by 19 per cent could be “disastrous” for universities and harm teaching, research and the well-being of scholars, academics have warned.

Last month, the government presented its first budget since Imran Khan, chairman of the centrist Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaf Party, came into power last August.

Mr Khan, a former international cricket star who was chancellor of the University of Bradford from 2005 to 2014, made several higher education pledges in his election manifesto, including promising to upgrade existing, and establish new, technical universities and make Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) fully autonomous. The commitments bolstered optimism that the country would finally confront corruption and improve quality in its university sector.

However, this buoyancy has been dampened by the new budget, which allocated 29 billion rupees (£140 million) to the HEC for 2019-20, compared with the previous allocation of 36 billion rupees by the former government. The majority of the funds will be used to complete old programmes, with the remaining money earmarked for new development schemes.

Funding allocated for “tertiary education affairs and services” also declined by 9 per cent to 65 billion rupees.

Mehvish Riaz, an assistant professor at the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore, said that the funding cuts were “definitely detrimental to the promotion of education and research and well-being of teachers, scholars and HEC employees”.

She added that she had already “personally suffered” as a result of the HEC closing research travel grant schemes because of a lack of available funds and the new cuts were likely to further contribute to the brain drain of academics.

“If universities tell their employees that they can’t purchase proper equipment, get travel grants or [use] research funds, then whoever finds a conducive environment elsewhere will naturally move out, especially when the middle class also has to bear the burden of taxes implemented in this budget and inflation caused by it,” she said.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Zohra and ZZ Ahmed Foundation distinguished professor in mathematics and physics at Lahore’s Forman Christian College, said that funding for higher education in Pakistan had “gone from boom – in 2002 to 2008 – to bust”.

“If applied across the board, the large cuts in the HEC budget will indeed be disastrous. For example, student fees will rise, access to higher education [will] decrease yet further, and regional disparities [will] increase to new heights,” he said.

However, he said that if the sector sees these cuts as an opportunity to “cut the fat, in the long run it will benefit higher education because it forces sharing of common research facilities and could lead to the rationalisation of the process for purchasing major pieces of scientific equipment”.

“Cost-cutting measures, such as reducing the number of wasteful overseas trips by administrators and faculty alike, have long been needed. If the process of awarding research grants is made fair and transparent, the impact of the cuts could become negligible because money would be steered away from those undeserving of funding,” he added.

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