As economy struggles, universities face budgetary squeeze

A poorly performing economy compounded by last year’s devastating floods have meant that Pakistan’s new government will struggle to satisfy the high expectations of more financial support on the part of the country’s higher education sector, which faces a tough year ahead.

In April 2022, the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led by then Prime Minister Imran Khan was forced out through a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly. A coalition government consisting of political parties who joined forces to oust Khan came into power, with Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as prime minister.

The PML-N inherited a crumbling economy and could not continue the significant support to higher education that had been visible in its previous tenure from 2013 to 2018.

The government intended to impose budget cuts on universities in its 2022 budget but had to step back because of widespread pre-budget pressure. Later in September, unprecedented floods in Pakistan worsened the situation for already resource-constrained universities as the new government could not fulfil its budget commitments.

The dwindling economy, falling currency, spiraling inflation, depleting foreign exchange reserves and high risk of debt defaults in recent months have minimised the possibility of financial viability for Pakistan’s funding-dependent universities.

A political about-face

When in opposition, parties in the sitting government had criticised the budget cuts imposed almost every year by Khan’s outgoing PTI regime which, in its maiden budget of 2019, had imposed a massive 37% funding cut on the development budget for universities.

When it presents its own budget in 2023, it is widely believed that the current government will also drastically cut funds to universities because of the nosediving economy.

The government of the PML-N had also been championing greater independence and autonomy of the Higher Education Commission, but is now planning to clip the wings of the regulatory and funding body by amending the law known as the HEC Ordinance of 2002 in order to confine the role of the HEC to the standardisation of higher education.

The proposed amendments in the HEC law will bring the body, which previously fell directly under the prime minister, under the control of the federal education ministry and will lead to a significant reduction in its budget.

Vice-chancellors of all government and private sector universities opposed the proposed amendments to the legal status of the commission at a meeting on 12 December 2022.

Columnist Munir Ahmed told University World News: “If the law governing this commission is changed as the government is planning, it will invite a harsh response from academia … as the government of Pakistan Peoples’ Party had tried to clip the HEC’s wings in 2010 but failed due to massive protests.

“The political party in this government [PML-N] had been opposing the dissolution of HEC then, but now itself wants to reduce the role and powers of the HEC.”

The Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), coalition partners in the present set-up, joined hands in 2010 to pass the 18th amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan that sought to devolve responsibility for education to the provinces – the federating units – and reduce the role of the HEC to a standard-setting body for research and higher education.

The provisions relating to the HEC could not be implemented owing to protests from the academic community.

Analysts expect that the parties may agree to reduce the role of the HEC in accordance with the 2010 constitutional amendment.

“The recent move to amend the HEC law seems to be continuation of the 2010 process of HEC devolution that could not take place due to resistance by academics,” Ahmed told University World News.

He said in view of the faltering economy leading towards foreseeable massive budget cuts ahead for 2023, it seems that the role of the HEC will be minimised.

Pakistan is currently facing the prospect of defaulting on its outstanding debts and is short of funds to meet budgeted obligations. According to the World Bank, the country has suffered nearly US$30 billion in damages and economic losses due to the devastating floods in 2022.

Growth of universities to be curtailed

The new government has also decided to stop the mushrooming growth of universities in the country and has barred HEC from issuing No Objection Certificates (NOCs) for setting up new universities, whether by government or the private sector.

Federal Education Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain directed the HEC through a letter in November 2022 to focus on setting standards and not issue NOCs for any new university at federal or provincial level. The letter stated that an “increase in the number of universities without standards would be useless”.

Mukhtar Ahmed, chair of the HEC, told media that he agrees with the minister’s intention to raise the standards of higher education rather than establish more universities.

Academics also believe that it is high time that the government provides the necessary financial support to existing universities rather than spending resources on establishing new ones.

Professor Aslam Tareen, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Quetta’s Balochistan University, told University World News: “Existing universities are facing a financial crunch and the previous government had been announcing and making new universities at the cost of existing ones.

“Staff of the universities had been protesting over non-payment of salaries and charters were being awarded for setting up new universities. That earned political fame for the previous regime but led to financial collapse of the older universities.”

In its tenure of almost four years, the PTI government established nine new universities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

A further 19 new universities were announced in its last budget for Punjab province including five universities already established by the PTI government in the province: Baba Guru Nanak University (Nankana Sahib), University of Mianwali, Women University Rawalpindi, Kohsar University (Murree) and the University of Chakwal.

The new universities to be established, as announced, include the University of Taunsa, Baba Farid University (Pakpattan), the Engineering University (Sialkot), University of Hafizabad, University of Attock, University of Bahawalnagar, University of Layyah, University of Muzaffargarh, Indus University (Rajanpur), University of Kasur, Waris Shah University (Sheikhupura), University of Gujranwala, University of Kamalia and Thal University in Bhakkar city.

There are currently 227 private and government-funded universities – including degree awarding institutes – operating in all provinces of the country. Twenty-one universities were established and started operating in the last four years. Out of the 227 institutions, the HEC recognises only 174 while 53 institutions continue to operate without recognition.

The HEC continues to issue alerts warning students and parents about unrecognised universities but has not taken any stern action against these institutions. The federal education minister has also reminded the HEC to act against illegal universities.

Corruption allegations

Al-Qadir University in Sohawa town in the district of Jhelum was inaugurated by former Prime Minister Imran Khan according to his personal wish to set up a university dedicated to promoting religious research and studies.

Khan is still chair of the university and, according to The News, a Rawalpindi-based English language newspaper, the university has enrolled only 100 students since its inauguration in 2021.

A media report published on 4 June 2022 linked the donation of land – measuring 458 kanals (more than 23 hectares) for the university – by a real estate tycoon and businessman to a friend of the former prime minister who then transferred the land to Khan’s wife Bushra Khan for the trust through which the university was established.

According to the report, in 2019 the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency agreed an out-of-court settlement of £190 million (US$229 million) with the family of the businessman after a frozen funds investigation.

According to the report, the UK agency said funds had to be returned to the government of Pakistan but they were, allegedly, allocated for another fine concerning this businessman during Khan’s tenure.

In November 2022, the country’s apex anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau, summoned both Khan and the businessman as part of an investigation into the case of Al-Qadir University and suspected inflows of money.