Government increases higher education budget

Pakistan’s federal government has increased the budget for higher education, allocating Rs20 billion (US$200 million) compared to last year’s Rs18.5 billion – a rise of 8.11%. The increase matches inflation, but has been welcomed after years of financial crisis and as a sign of good intent on the part of the new government.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announced the annual budget amounting to Rs3,936 billion (US$39.36 billion) in the national assembly on Tuesday 3 June.

The Higher Education Commission budget is part of the government’s Public Sector Development Programme, or PSDP, for which Rs525 billion has been earmarked for development work in government-run institutions and departments.

The higher education budget comprises 3.96% of the PSDP budget, and the rest goes to other ministries and institutions working under the federal government.

The funds earmarked for the development of higher education will be spent through the central Higher Education Commission, or HEC, which regulates and funds universities in Pakistan. The HEC will also get a Rs43 billion non-development ‘recurring’ budget mainly for university staff salaries and utility bills.

HEC Chair Mukhtar Ahmed told University World News: “This is pleasing news and we welcome a second consecutive rise in the higher education development budget by the new government of Pakistan Muslim League.”

The commission faced severe financial problems under the former government led by the Pakistan People’s Party, which introduced the 18th amendment in the constitution for greater provincial autonomy, which left the HEC stranded in the middle of nowhere.

The HEC and thus the higher education budget was also drastically cut, prompting mass protests in universities.

Before the budget announcement, academics had feared a slash in public funding for higher education in view of recent moves by the provinces to set up their own HECs, following the 2010 constitutional amendment that declared education a provincial responsibility.

The Rs20 billion will be spent on 55 new and 338 ongoing higher education development projects.

The new projects mainly include new degree programmes at various universities, expansion or construction of new academic facilities, enhancement or provision of research facilities, building of new universities or new campuses at existing universities, new institutes or chairs in public universities, scholarships, and upgrading some big colleges into universities.

The HEC demanded Rs5.3 billion for its 55 new programmes but the government has initially committed Rs3.2 billion, promising that the rest of the money will be provided in the coming year if these programmes are cleared by the Central Development Working Party, a body that assesses national needs and approves development projects for government funding.

Aitzaz Ahmad, vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, told University World News: “The announced increase in budget is nullified when compared with the 8.3% inflation rate, yet we are happy that higher education is still on federal government’s agenda, which gives us hope for something positive about the HEC during next financial year.”

The final decision on the future of the HEC and the funding mechanism for it is to be made in the upcoming National Finance Commission, or NFC, award that distributes resources between the provinces and the federal government and is decided by a high-powered body consisting of representatives from central government and the federating units.

“Although the academia is pleased to know about this rise in the new budget, yet we are not sure about the fate of the HEC which is under the hanging sword of the new NFC award,” Mujahid Kamran, vice-chancellor of Lahore’s Punjab University, told University World News.

A source in the finance ministry told University World News: “The new award, due any time after 1 July this year, will most likely put the responsibility of funding of universities on the provinces but universities located in the federal capital territory will continue to receive funds from the central government.”