PAKISTAN: Politics, not floods, divert university funds

When Pakistan's government said higher education funds were to be diverted to flood relief and rehabilitation during this summer's unprecedented inundations, it drew severe criticism from the academic community. Cutting higher education funds for flood relief was equivalent to getting part of the population out of the waters but pushing the entire nation into eternal darkness, they said.

But with funds slashed even further last month, universities shut their doors on 22 September in a countrywide boycott organised by the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Associations (FAPUASA). This led to a partial cave-in the next day by the government, which agreed to release some funds to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for universities.

FAPUASA officials have suggested the severe floods have been used as a fig leaf by a government wanting to cut back on higher education for political reasons.

They said the government's decision to reduce grants and not to pay additional funds for increased salaries for academics had been made long before the floods.

"We started protesting against cuts in universities' funding even before the HEC raised its voice on the same issue. Our decision to halt protests during floods made the government think it could make an even bigger cut in the higher education budget. We did not let it happen," FAPUASA's Punjab chapter president Zafer Noon told University World News.

Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh told local media: "The country is passing [through] a difficult phase and the HEC has to share the burden."

But neither he nor Nadeem Ul Haq, deputy chief of the Planning Commission, gave any hint of why HEC funds were slashed in June, almost a month before the floods hit Pakistan.

The higher education budget was reduced by 33% in the June budget when the government approved 15.76 billion rupees (US$184 million) for universities to be channelled through the HEC - compared with the previous year's 18 billion rupees approved by parliament.

The government announced a further 50% cut in the higher education budget on 12 September - totalling an 83% reduction in a year.

But Pakistan's country details, currently with the International Monetary Fund, disclose that the government at the same time increased defence spending by 110 billion rupees.

The finance ministry has denied this, claiming it could be a "typing error".

The army's chief spokesman Athar Abbas also denied knowledge of a defence budget increase. But the Pakistan Army has repeatedly demanded more resources to continue its war against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley, just 100 kilometres from the capital Islamabad.

However, political reasons rather than the defence budget have affected the higher education sector in Pakistan, as the war-on-terror-related defence budget is supplemented by US government funds.

Major changes that have been unilaterally decided in the higher education budget have angered both the government's coalition allies and opposition members of parliament including the government's Science Minister, Azam Swati of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, who criticised the government's decision to reduce higher education funding.

Chairman of the national assembly standing committee on education, Abid Sher Ali of the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League, told University World News: "This is undemocratic on the part of a democratic government to make such big changes in the parliament-approved budget without discussing it in the parliament and without its approval."

Last year's higher education budget was also cut, ostensibly because of the global economic slump, while the defence budget was increased to re-establish state control in the dense mountainous area along the border with Afghanistan, considered to be the Taliban's base camp.

Last January, financial problems forced the government to suspend plans to create six new universities in collaboration with foreign universities. The government also halved money for research scholarships and around 85 projects by the HEC were suspended for want of funds. A few projects on life sciences and chemistry were permanently closed.

Commentators said the government's priorities had changed and it was channelling more money where it could gain immediate political benefits.

They said giving cash to people under an income support programme, for which 50 billion rupees had been set aside in the current budget, and distributing money among lawyers, could return more direct and instant political benefits than investing in education.

"Cutting the universities' budget amid increasing billions for politically motivated projects is a kind of bribe for political benefits. Investing in education is the long-lasting solution for poverty reduction," Mazhar Iqbal, professor of economics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, told University World News.

Others said the HEC was ripe for cuts as it no longer had high-level support within the government. The HEC enjoys an independent status outside the education ministry to safeguard it from political interference, but this status made it weaker during budget bargaining as it had no minister representing it in the cabinet or speaking for it in parliament.

The chairman of the HEC has the status of a federal minister but cannot attend cabinet meetings and is not a member of parliament.

And the HEC is currently leading the investigation into held by Pakistan's lawmakers. Abid Sher Ali told University World News: "Degrees verification might be a reason behind cutting HEC funds because it resisted pressure to stop the process of verification."

The new democratic government started reducing funds to the HEC soon after the 2008 elections, when the HEC was headed by high profile Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, who had been a minister during the previous Musharraf regime. This prompted Atta-ur-Rahman to resign in October 2008.

Pakistan had around 40 universities in 2000. Under Musharraf the number rose to 132, with 72 universities under the government and the others in the private sector. Higher education funding rose to US$234 million in 2008 from US$4.9 million in 2002. The country started producing 650 PhDs a year, up from 50 a year a decade before.

Since its climb-down last month, the government has been trying to dispel the image that it has anti-higher education.

In a press note obtained by University World News, the Planning Commission's Nadeem Ul Haq said the HEC had "been asked to shape its prioritisation plan in line with fiscal requirements of the country. This exercise is mainly to help find ways to ensure that the development of the Higher Education Commission continues in these difficult times. The impression that the government is not committed to funding higher education is therefore erroneous."

Nadeem told University World News: "Universities should be able to generate funds themselves and they should reduce their dependence on government money."

However, Anwar Nasim, a veteran scientist and science adviser to the OIC Committee on Science and Technology in Islamabad, said funding for public sector universities is the government's responsibility. "It cannot get away with it by just saying 'DIY' [do it yourself]," he said.

"Public-private partnerships, as suggested by the government, are not going to produce money as rapidly as is needed by universities. It requires many years in Pakistan's context before universities would be able to generate all or some of the expenses," Nasim told University World News.

Vice-chancellors, particularly of universities in the less developed provinces, meanwhile said raising tuition fees to bridge the budget gap was out of the question.

Critics believe the government's pledge to release the promised money is a political tactic to temporarily appease public sentiment. The countrywide protests, including the boycott, proved the government's belief that higher education was a soft target to be a miscalculation, and the government was forced to withdraw its decision.

Masoom Yasinzai, Vice-chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, told University World News that although the boycott was successful he did not think the government would fulfill its promise of restoring universities' funding. The government's offer was "merely interim relief," he said.

HEC Chairman Javaid Laghari told University World News: "We don't think the funding issue has been resolved permanently but it has been settled for this year at least. We hope the government will release funds as promised."

Laghari said last month at a press conference: "Any roll back would severely affect the growth that HEC has made over the last eight years." He also mentioned exploring other funding mechanisms such as convening a donors' conference for the higher education sector in Pakistan.

FAPUASA President Mehr Saeed Akhtar told University World News: "Universities are passing through a very difficult and critical time in the history of Pakistan. We doubt that the government will fulfil its promise of restoring universities' funds. We shall resume protests if the government backtracks from its commitment."


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