Pakistani Universities Facing Closures

As if the floods and bomb blasts were not enough, another disaster is in the works. The Pakistani government has refused to bail out 73 public sector universities. It says that they have to generate their own resources if they want to stay afloat. Pakistan's finance minister suggested that the public universities should be privatized in order to make them profitable. In protest, 71 of the vice chancellors have threatened to not just resign but also lock down the campuses. Negotiations are underway but no decisions have been made yet.

Pakistani universities follow the global system of public and private institutions. There is a Higher Education Commission (HEC) that acts as the supervisory body and also provides the funding. There were only a couple dozen public sector universities and a few private ones before the creation of this apex authority. This, however, changed during the rein of General Pervez Musharraf as he encouraged the opening of private universities and provided ample grants to public sector institutions. A comprehensive teachers training program was also implemented and hundreds of students were sent abroad for doctoral studies on full scholarships.

This resulted in an higher education bubble where 60 private universities were granted charter and dozens of public universities were opened, many at the district level. The bubble has since burst and there are many reasons for this mayhem. The incumbent government of the People's Party made political appointments in the HEC. Financial crunch ensured reduced grants to the commission and the floods proved to be the final nail in the coffin. A total of 33.4 billion Rupees were allocated for the universities in the year 2006-2007, not a single Rupee has been released by the government for the current fiscal year, despite a 15.7 billion allocation. Universities are scrambling for resources and up to 8,000 PhD scholars have not been paid stipends; those enrolled at foreign universities are facing expulsions, too.

Universities are also to be blamed for this mess as there is no concept of endowment funds in Pakistan. There is a 40 year old rot in the Pakistani education system where admissions are granted not on the basis of merit but on regional quotas. The system was imposed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected prime minister, to appease his electorate. The quotas have survived coups and democracies. This means that a student from Karachi with A grade -- a city with the lowest quotas though the largest population -- can't get admission in a university but a C-grader from the rural Sindh will clinch a seat. The same quotas are applied in government jobs.

Poverty is pervasive in Pakistan and millions of students apply for admissions in the public universities. It's their only chance of braving quotas and getting into the college educated bandwagon, thus brightening their chances of extricating themselves of destitution. Tuition fees are minuscule -- so low that there is no need of scrambling for any student loans -- and dorms are heavily subsidized. Private universities obviously are out of their reach. Public sector universities have made full use of this situation. There is nary a development plan nor any endowment funds. All they have is a complete reliance on public funding.

The government can still bail the universities out despite the financial agony brought by the floods. An unspecified amount of the GDP is spent on defense budget, which, according to some estimates, is as high as 25% of the total spending. There are also some reports of a major boost in this budget despite the financial crunch. The government can divert a few billions from the defense budget towards the public universities. The chances of that happening are in the zilch. The defense budget is strictly controlled by the military and even the elected officials are unable to demand any audits of the spending and allocations.

Pakistan spends only 2% of its GDP on education, one of the lowest ratios in the world. With the looming bankruptcy due to floods, one can expect more cuts rather than any relief. Perhaps the poor of Pakistan need to bid adieu to their dreams of higher education. Extremists are ready to embrace them with open arms.

P.S. An agreement has finally been reached where the government will provide the universities with sustenance money but the funding for research and development projects and scholarships will see a temporary freeze.