New government gives 23% boost to higher education budget

Pakistan’s new government has announced a 22.84% rise in the higher education development budget by allocating Rs18.5 billion (US$185 million) compared to last year’s Rs15.1 billion.

The money will be spent through the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, which welcomed the increase, terming it a “breath of fresh air” in a letter sent to vice-chancellors of Pakistani universities after the budget announcement in the National Assembly.

Besides the more than Rs18 billion development budget, the HEC will receive a non-development budget of Rs39 billion (US$390 million) to meet the operational costs of staff and running universities.

Universities have been facing financial crises during the past five years under the government of the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, during which the HEC faced abolition after a constitutional amendment that devolved education to the provinces.

The previous government slashed the higher education budget to Rs15 billion from Rs22 billion in 2009. Large portions of approved money were also denied during the past five years, leading to numerous mass protests.

Pakistani academics have welcomed the new budget increase, and higher education leaders hope that the new government led by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), which was sworn in this month, will also save the respected HEC from being devolved to the provinces.

“It is not only a financial increase but also shows that the present government is going to take a different stand on higher education compared with the previous political regime, during which the HEC remained under constant threat of abolition and was punished with budgetary cuts every year,” Masoom Yasinzai, vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, told University World News.

“We hope new government will save HEC from destruction.”

Hopes raised

The hopes of academics are based on the fact that developing higher education was part of the budget speech delivered by Finance Minister Senator Ishaq Dar during parliament’s budget session on 12 June in Islamabad, the seat of the government.

The minister told the house: “A sizeable allocation of Rs18 billion has been made for the Higher Education Commission, which will support development plans of different universities all over the country.”

Dar added: “Enrolment in higher education will increase from 1.08 million students in 2012-13 to 1.23 million students in 2013-14, showing an increase of 14% in the population of students pursuing higher education.”

He informed legislators that the new government would also increase the number of scholarships in the coming financial year, which starts on 1 July. The number of foreign scholarships would rise from 4,249 to 6,249.

Skills development

The new government also unveiled a skills development programme aimed at reducing graduate unemployment by providing training and internships, with the government paying the fees. Emphasis will be placed on professions in demand and on trades that enable graduates to become self-employed.

Waqar Masood, secretary of the Ministry of Finance, told University World News that the new government had announced small business loans of up to Rs2 million to enable youth to become self-employed. “Besides that, laptops will also be given to distinguished students pursuing higher education.”

Masood said the new government would provide tuition fee support – and possibly a 100% waiver – to higher education students from less developed areas of the country. In the past, this benefit was available only to students in the ‘war-on-terror zone’ (federally administered tribal areas) bordering Afghanistan.

HEC Chair Javad Laghari told University World News: “The recent budget increase and the youth-focused initiatives by the new democratic government will lead the country to fast-paced economic development, provided this spirit is sustained in future.”

He said the commission would spend the money allocated to it on scholarships, development of universities, strengthening research, establishing new universities, and constructing additional buildings and infrastructure at government-owned higher education institutions.