Nov 17 - 23, 2008

The higher education sector managed by Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) headed till recently by Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman a blue eyed boy of former president Musharaf has been most seriously hit by the financial crises being faced by the country.

Many of its developments projects have been shelved while the budget allocation for the ongoing projects has been drastically cut. Even the grant for the current year Phd. Programme has been shelved. Frustrated Dr. Atta has resigned from the Chairmanship of the Commission. No one has been appointed in his place. Besides the government has shelved a project worth Rs250 billion, under which six engineering universities were planned in collaboration with various technologically advanced countries. The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) had approved funding for four universities back in 2006 and the HEC was actively working on them and decision for the rest was in the final stages.

Under the project, each university was allocated Rs42 billion for eight years. However, the new government soon after taking over the charge, made a four member committee with deputy chairman, Planning Commission, in the chair to revisit the project and present a report to the federal cabinet. The committee in its report suggested that project should remain intact but cut down the budget for each university from Rs42 billion to Rs18 billion without compromising its major task.

After receiving the recommendation, the federal cabinet again directed the committee to discuss the whole project with the respective provincial government, where these universities were to be set up. "Officially speaking, the government has frozen this whole project for the time being, and there are very grim possibilities that the government would resume it in near future," an official of HEC told this scribe on condition of anonymity.

The HEC had signed Memorandums of Understanding with Italy, Germany, China, Austria and Sweden and discussions were on with France in this regard. Over the last couple of years, the outgoing chairman of the HEC, Dr Attaur Rehman, had hailed this project as one of his best achievements for the higher education sector in Pakistan. In response to a question, the member HEC said, so far a total amount of Rs2 billion had been spent on this project of which a major chunk of Rs1.1 billion was paid to the Capital Development Authority to buy a piece of land at Kuri Road, Islamabad.

China had agreed to set up an engineering university in Islamabad. Sweden was collaborating to set up such a university in Sialkot; Italy and France in Karachi, Austria and Germany in Lahore. In response to another question, the HEC members said, only Sweden had refused to come over to Pakistan citing security concerns, however, rest of the countries were still on board. To another query, he said, though it was an ambitions project, it was being implemented successfully, adding ongoing economic downturn and security concerns were the main causes for its freezing.

The country's financial crisis has forced the HEC to ask universities to stop all development projects as it hardly has the resources to finance them. An official HEC document stated that the commission can only manage to fund the 250 development projects that are currently being executed in universities across the country. The document warns that if the HEC stops releasing funds according to the approved plans, the universities will face many problems by canceling the ongoing construction contracts. This will lead to many legal complications and costs. It also revealed that the government released only 2.5 billion rupees in the first quarter for the development grant for a demand of 4.5 billion rupees that was stated in the proposed plan for the 284 approved HEC projects.

HEC has sent 6,500 scholars to pursue higher studies abroad. It is also supporting around 4,000 scholars who are involved in research within Pakistan. Considering the importance of the agreements the HRD and HEC have with international universities, the commission has to allocate 1.5 billion rupees out of its 2.5-billion-rupee first quarter funds to support the scholars who are currently studying abroad. This has left HEC with little resources to support university development projects within the country. A source in HEC said "we are providing monthly stipends to all scholarship holders studying abroad. The HEC is not sure whether it can afford to award future scholarships but it has to keep supporting scholars already studying abroad. We cannot leave them halfway through, that will be a major setback to the country's higher education sector".

Another source in the HEC confided that the Commission is almost at the brink of collapse. "Survival of HEC is at stake as its second quarter of operational funds, amounting to Rs 3 billion, is also yet to be released," source added. Earlier, the present government has approved a massive cut in the HEC funds, which resulted in halt of many developmental projects of the Commission across the county, including cancellation of scholarship scheme. The HEC's operations included the provision of scholarships to fresh graduates and faculty members for M Phil and PhD, foreign faculty hiring scheme, research & development schemes, which provide grants to researchers, IT division, digital library to link universities with each other across the county, learning innovation scheme for skill development, linguistics and computer skill, establishment of new universities project in collaboration with foreign countries.

"Besides halting these operations, the non-cooperating attitude of the incumbent government would further badly damage the projects of newly-established universities like Karoko-ram, Hazara, Sargodh and many other universities in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. He said adding that "HEC is facing severe financial crunch," and if prevailing situation persists, then HEC would not able to run its ongoing projects. To a quarry, he said: "We have no other option but to cancel more operations running under HEC across the country. He said that if HEC would close its operations then certainly government itself would be responsible for loss of resources and decline in quality of education in the county.

He claimed that performance of HEC has been commended internationally, as currently many other countries were cooperating with the Commission. "Under HEC Human Resources Development Scheme, more than 6000 students have got MPhil PhD scholarship, but if Government is not ready to give importance to enhance quality of education then foreign countries would also stop cooperation with the HEC," he regretted. Owing to lack of funds now it is difficult for us to pay salaries to foreign faculty members serving in different universities of the country. No doubt many in the field of education were critical of various HEC initiatives taken under the tenure of outgoing Chairman Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman and the manner in which he ran the organization.

But majority of educationists and experts in the field of education including foreigners had repeatedly admired Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman as a professional and a seasoned educationist, for his dynamic leadership under which HEC improved the sector of higher education both in number and quality. The reincarnation of the former University Grants Commission as Higher Education Commission of Pakistan was well conceived and well designed to tread a path well laid out and to make the best of the Chairman's inexhaustible energies. Under his dynamic stewardship HEC has already logged a great mileage in terms of reform and renewal of things on campuses. Figuratively, as the guardian angel of higher education the commission is pulling its weight to step up the process of change and develop the lagging sector to a level of its lost glory. The way the present government is treating this organization is really deplorable.