Universities observe ‘black day’ following harsh funding cut

Monday 25 June was observed as a ‘black day’ by universities across Pakistan, to register protest against low funding for the higher education sector. University budgets have been slashed since the country’s democratic government came to power in 2008.

The National Assembly on 14 June approved a Rs29.6 trillion (US$0.3 trillion) budget for the 2012-13 financial year starting on 1 July, but placed universities under financial stress by allocating only a PKR15.8 billion development budget to higher education.

The universities allocation represented a mere 0.053% of the total budget.

The democratic government has cut the higher education allocation since 2009, when it was Rs22 billion. The latest budget gave Rs10 billion less than requested by the Higher Education Commission, or HEC.

The government allocated Rs14 billion in the 2011-12 year ending on 30 June, but Rs6.73 billion had not been paid to the commission from the previous year, putting many programmes – including the country’s overseas scholarship scheme – at risk of closure.

HEC Chairman Javaid Laghari told University World News: “The budget amount earmarked for higher education is far less than the scope of work in this field.

“This situation will put us under pressure to either reduce the volume of activities or close some important higher education development programmes.”

The president of the Punjab chapter of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association, Suhail Qureshi, said: “We strongly condemn the federal government for its short-sighted vision of higher education and for cuts it has imposed on the higher education budget.”

“How can we believe in the new budget allocation when a larger sum from the previous year has still not been paid to universities?” he asked.

Masoom Yasinzai, vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, told University World News that the new budget allocation was a “problem that will show its effects later. But now we are faced with a financial crunch due to non-provision of already-approved funds."

The matter of non-provision of funds to universities is so serious that it was taken up by the human rights committee of the National Assembly a day before the new budget was approved.

“Some 3,500 students studying abroad on government scholarships are faced with severe financial crises because we do not have money to send to them for their fee and boarding expenses,” HEC representative Wasim Hashmi told the parliamentary committee.

At a 13 June meeting, all the country’s vice-chancellors also demanded release of funds from the previous year, saying that “non-release of higher education development funds will not only adversely affect ongoing projects but will also cause huge damage to new and rural-based universities, which do not have enough fee revenues to cope with the crisis”.

Pakistan’s government announced in 2010 a 50% pay rise for government employees including university staff, then another rise of 15% in 2011 and yet another rise of 20% in the newly passed budget.

But the higher salaries have not transpired for academic and non-teaching staff at universities.

Vice-president of Quaid-e-Azam University’s Academic Staff Association Rashid Khalid told University World News: “This government is joking with academics. When the government announced pay rises, it should honour its commitment by providing extra funds for this.”

Comparing the current allocation of Rs15.8 billion for the HEC with the Rs22 billion in 2009, a hike given by former military dictator Parvez Musharraf, Rashid said:

“What answer will I give to my student asking a simple question, ‘Is dictatorship better or democracy?’ This is definitely going to put the higher education managers of the country into a tough situation.”