Transforming Pakistani Higher Education: Navigating Budget Cuts And Embracing Change

Transforming Pakistani Higher Education: Navigating Budget Cuts And Embracing Change

“Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.”
(Henry Peter Brougham)

In any country, higher education is as crucial as defense. It plays a critical role in developing human capital, fostering research and development, and contributing to innovation. Universities in developed countries generate knowledge that drives new ideas, innovations, and developments, which are vital for any country's sustainability. Countries with a higher level of innovation and knowledge-based economies have witnessed significant economic and developmental growth.

However, in most developing countries, when facing a financial crisis or budget deficit, the first area to be cut is education. Unfortunately, societies that don't prioritise education and youth often make this choice. In Pakistan, education is not viewed as a development priority, but rather as a social problem. When a new budget is proposed, education is often the first area to experience budget cuts. Instead, funds are allocated to defense, subsidies for private enterprises, and social safety net programs. These priorities reflect the state's lack of concern for educating youth and developing human capital.

In the Federal budget 2022-23, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail demonstrated that the state has yet to adopt new policies according to modern times. The Higher Education Commission requested 105 billion for projects and development, but the government only approved 30 billion to compete with running expenses, which amounted to a meagre 0.04% of the GDP. This small allocation for higher education shows the state's priorities. However, later in the budget cycle, the education allocation increased from 30 billion to 66 billion but still fell short of the HEC's demands.

HEC has requested an increase in funding to implement new policies for promoting higher education. In 2021-22, HEC requested a grant of 120 billion, and 65 billion was allocated. For 2022-23, HEC requested 104 billion, and only 66 billion was granted, indicating that the Federal government allocated an average budget of 63-66 billion between 2017-18 and 2022-23. With a gap of 35 billion (37%), HEC must implement practical higher education programs in Pakistan.

This raises the question of where the state's priorities lie. Looking at the Federal Budget 2022-23, it's clear that defense is the top priority in Pakistan, with an allocation of 1,566,698 million rupees. The power division received a grant of 355,368 million, and subsidies were allocated to Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Railways, which are already a burden on the struggling economy. In contrast, social protection received 370,103 million, and the Benazir Income Support Program received 364,078 million. This budget reflects the government's lack of interest in reforming education and its tendency to repeat past mistakes.

By comparison, countries like the US, India, Brazil, China, and Turkey, which are much more prosperous than Pakistan, allocate a significant portion of their budget to education. The US, with a budget of $25.66 trillion, allocates 5.59%, and India, with $3.469 trillion, allocates 6% of its GDP for education. China allocates 4% of its $18.32 trillion budget, and Turkey, with a $4.2 trillion budget, allocates 5.1% of its GDP to the education system. In contrast, Pakistan spends less than 1% of its GDP on education. These figures demonstrate the state's priorities, with the government allocating a significant budget for defense affairs and services and less than 1% of its GDP for already struggling higher education.

Meeting the demands of the global market requires specific skills and knowledge that are difficult to attain without a significant budget. A budget cut would hamper universities' ability to train graduates and develop the necessary skills to benefit the nation. Research activities would also suffer, with fewer labs and research centres having limited resources. In today's world, the economy relies more on the authority of ideas rather than the ideas of authority. Therefore, research institutions must be incentivised to generate more knowledge and research for the country's productive growth.

Even significant institutions like the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Harvard rely on government assistance for research activities and financial aid for their students. In the current situation, the HEC needs a significant budget to run 227 universities and over 20 research centres, establish 18 new universities, undertake research and development projects, and collaborate with international students. However, the HEC's dire financial situation means that increasing teacher salaries and pensions will be a challenge. Therefore, the HEC should be incentivised to complete its higher education policy agenda.

The current HEC budget has resulted in many universities, departments, and research centres closing down to manage running expenses. Additionally, the increasing fees in universities will result in social inequality and limit the middle and lower classes' access to higher education. The evening programs that universities are offering to finance themselves threaten the existing education system and turn universities into business hubs. Furthermore, increasing the number of students would ultimately affect the quality of education. It would be impossible for teachers to teach effectively to over 100 students.

To address this challenging situation, HEC must implement specific policies to reduce its dependence on government funding. To achieve this, public-private partnerships should be established to fund higher education in Pakistan. For instance, the government could partner with private industries and organisations to provide financial support to research institutions, engineering fields, medical colleges, and social sciences institutions. In return, these institutions could generate new knowledge and research technologies for private sectors, promoting their productivity and economic growth. This partnership would incentivise both partners and contribute to the development of a flourishing research and development culture in Pakistan.

The United States established land-grant colleges under Lincoln's administration to promote education and research for agricultural production and the dissemination of agricultural technologies, which are crucial to the country's economic growth. In contrast, Pakistan's economy mainly relies on the agricultural sector, which contributes about 24% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is the primary source of foreign exchange earnings. Therefore, the government should establish initiatives similar to land-grant colleges to improve agricultural productivity and promote economic growth.

Higher education plays a significant role in the dissemination of new knowledge, innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and technology, which contribute significantly to society's advancement. In Pakistan, the government emphasises infrastructure development, such as dams, roads, and metro stations, while neglecting the importance of research development to support human capital. Additionally, defense expenditures and social safety net programs are given priority in every budget, reflecting state priorities. If the budget is cut, higher education will suffer in quantitative and qualitative terms. Therefore, education should be a top priority, and a research and development culture should be developed to support the country's growth.