It can be said without fear of contradiction that quantitative expansion of the universities is always and invariably at the expense of quality. This time around, however, it has to stop, nay, a time bound moratorium is required, to save the universities already there from closure. Even well-established universities are unable to pay visiting faculty, temporary staff, and pensions. Maintenance of services is short-funded, and in some cases, salaries of permanent staff have been delayed or paid less than fully. Endowments are being eroded. Development projects are stalled. Spread over 24 pages, the federal budget 2021-22 shows 155 universities/institutes chasing a current budget of just Rs62.25 billion. There are 127 ongoing and 39 new projects occupying the largest number of pages in the federal PSDP document. It is a hefty 14% of the total schemes in PSDP, with a shoe-string allocation of Rs42.45 billion. Even if the fiscal situation improves, and that is no small ‘if’, it is unlikely that the HEC funding will ever rise to this unfortunate occasion. Higher education is not a federal responsibility after the 18th amendment. Federal funding will continue only until a ‘a single national curriculum type’ mindset prevails, or, technically, during the currency of the 7th NFC award.
Provinces have played clever. Federal intrusion does not hurt autonomy so long as it is underwritten by federal funding. There is a competition among provinces to set up new universities. AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan have also joined the fray. All they have to do is to pass a law and provide land and seed money. Then the moral hazard comes into play, as the provinces don’t have to bear the future risks. In the current year, all provinces together allocated around Rs96 billion against HEC’s Rs105 billion. Punjab is planning for a university in each district. It announced the establishment of 19 new universities in different districts. Incidentally, most universities were established before any quality standards existed formally. Those being set up now will not have the necessary wherewithal to reach standards now in place for a long time to come. Instead of focusing on elementary education to fulfil the constitutional mandate of universal enrolment, the political-bureaucratic nexus finds it lucrative to establish universities because it involves bigger contracts and ghost avenues of employment.
Higher education is not a right. Entry has to be based on merit and the delivery of service has to be appropriately priced. Unlike elementary education the universalisation which leads to social returns, higher education yields private returns. Those with merit but without means should be subsidised. They should not be used as an alibi for ‘Universities for All’ slogan. Apart from detracting from the true meaning of ‘Education for All’ and the obligation to fully fund it, the brick and mortar approach to higher education is degrading degrees, reducing employability and contributing to unrest in society. It is producing cynics who, in the words of Oscar Wilde, know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
It is time to take a pause and do some smart thinking rather than throwing good money after bad. The linchpin of the consolidation plan should be to respect the Constitution and let the Higher Education Commission (HEC) function purely as a regulator of quality, leaving all else to the provinces and their respective higher education commissions. This of course includes resource allocation, the mother of all evils at the HEC. The HEC should not be known by the man it keeps, but the quality it delivers. For all else, let fools contend.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2021.