May 3 - 16, 2010

Almost every sector has suffered during the last 2 years of the PPP government but higher education sector seemed to be the worst sufferer.

Its decline seems stark when compared to its galloping speed upward during the earlier decade. It seems to have been hit most seriously by the financial crises being faced by the country. It now appears on the verge of collapse.

Many of its development projects have been shelved while the budget allocation for the ongoing projects has been drastically cut.

The higher education sector was previously managed by a newly created organisation called higher education commission of Pakistan (HEC) with renowned educationist Dr Atta-ur-Rehman as its first chairman who was very closed to the then President General Musharraf. Downfall of the General and drastic cut in the commission's budget forced the commission to terminate many of its programme. Dr Atta-ur-Rehman resigned from the chairmanship of the commission.

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 Higher Education Commission 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 the 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 tasks.

After receiving the recommendation, the federal cabinet again directed the committee to discuss the whole project with the respective provincial governments, 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 HEC member told on condition of anonymity.

The HEC had signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with Italy, Germany, China, Austria and Sweden and discussions were on with France in this regard.

Over the last couple of years, the ex-chairman of HEC, Dr Attaur Rehman hailed this project as one of his best achievements for the higher education in Pakistan.

The fate of nearly 400 students who had to leave the country for MS/PhD in various disciplines abroad hangs in balance as the government has imposed major cuts on its annual budgetary allocations of HEC and due to inordinate delays in the releases of funds.

It has been learnt that it was last year's project and the commission had to send MS/ PhD students of various disciplines 2009 to different countries' under the scholarship programme of the commission but due to financial constraints it did not happen.

During the ongoing financial year 2009-10 after the allocations, the commission started the project again but now when the students have been selected and are waiting to start their studies abroad the delay in the allocation of funds has stopped the process.

Even some had left their jobs as they had been selected for the scholarship project, which is a major project of the commission. Many construction projects have also come to a halt in view of the government's decision not to provide funds to HEC and due to delays in the release of funds. Development projects at different universities across the country couldn't be started and the construction of new campuses of universities in various areas like construction of UET Campus in Jalozai has also been postponed.

The government has earmarked about Rs22.5 billion for the HEC in the current financial year but so far nearly Rs10 billion have been released by the government. The government has imposed 18 per cent cut on the development budget of the commission and it has been learnt that the commission would get only Rs18.5 billion against the pledge amount of Rs22.5 billion.

The commission has been informed by the government formally that Rs4 billion would not be released.

The financial worries of the HEC started due to the delays in the release of the amount. The funds, which the government has pledged to release, have not been released timely as well.

When only two months have left of the current financial year the government has managed to release only 45 per cent of the funds to the commission.

It is important to mention here that the cut has been imposed despite the prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's assurance that education and health sector would be granted pledged amounts.

The future of HEC has become most uncertain after the announcement of provincial autonomy under which the education has become a provincial subject. It is being strongly felt in the relevant circles that it would be understandable to transfer the subject of university education to the provinces. Production of highly qualified and properly trained workforce is an achievement that the Higher

Education Commission of Pakistan has done an excellent job in this field in a limited time.

This is in the national interest that this institution must be saved to serve important national needs.

Financial requirement of high education sector should be given priority by the government.