Education has been understood as an essential element for development and social change. Higher Education, in particular, is known to play a crucial role in grooming a new generation as catalyst for socio-economic change in the country. Pakistan’s budgetary allocation for education is among the lowest in the world, at less than 2% of the GDP. Only six countries in the world spend less than Pakistan on education as percentage of GDP. Out of total allocated amount for education sector, less than 10% is spent on higher education, which is also among the lowest among developing countries. According to international standards, the budget for higher education should not be less than one-fourth (25%) of the total allocated education budget but in Pakistan it is less than one-tenth. Pakistan is already struggling to improve its low access to higher education ratio, which currently stands at 8% as compared to 18% in neighbouring India, 12% in Bangladesh 37% in Malaysia, 39% in Turkey and 95% in South Korea.
The previous federal government allocated Rs. 87.08 billion for higher education during 2007 to 2012 but only released Rs. 66.94 billion. A shortfall of Rs. 20.14 billion severely affected Pakistan’s already neglected higher education sector.
The 18th Constitutional Amendment is an important step towards strengthening the parliamentary democracy and federal system in the country. It promises more autonomy to the provinces — a popular demand put forward by a number of political parties. Apart from the political restructuring, the amendment also holds some major implications for the country`s system of education. Through it a new article, 25A, ‘Right to Eductation’ has been made a fundamental rights.
Prior to the 18th Amendment, there was no explicit entry dealing with higher education. Realizing the importance of higher education for socio-economic development of country, the 18th Amendment contains specific provisions regarding higher education. In the Fourth Schedule [Article 70(4)]: Federal Legislative List Part I, Items 16 and 17 address issues such as research and foreign students, while the Fourth Schedule [Article 70(4)]: Federal Legislative List Part II, Items 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13 deal with regulation of higher education, national planning, coordination of scientific and technical research, legal, medical and other professions, standards in institutions of higher education and research as well as scientific and technical institutions and inter-provincial matters and coordination. Presently, these functions are being undertaken by Higher Education Commission (HEC).
The promotion of higher education has also become joint responsibility of federal and provincial governments as federal list II functions fall under the preview of Council of Common Interest (CCI). The Council in its meeting held during May 2011 decided that the financing of provincial universities and population welfare would be the responsibility of federal government till next National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. Meanwhile, the provinces should also have responsibility to build the capacity of universities by providing them funding so that they can meet the standards.
The 18th Amendment Implementation Commission, constituted under Article 270 AA of the Constitution of Pakistan, recommended that HEC at federal level should have certain powers including evaluation of the performance of institutions, prescribing conditions for higher and technical education, setting up national or regional evaluation councils, accreditation, evaluation & ranking of institutions, faculties and disciplines, setting up tested bodies or designate any existing body, equivalence & recognition of degrees and diplomas & certificates of higher education within the country & abroad etc.
As follow up of spirit of 18th amendment, HEC within last few years has undertaken a number of reforms which include allocation of development funds to the universities as per NFC formula, application of federal quota policy on indigenous and foreign scholarships, formation of Task Force on Balochistan, effective formal working mechanism with provincial higher education departments, special human resource programs and fee waiver schemes for less developed areas, formation of provincial chapters of vice chancellors committee, ensuring provincial representation in various committees, strengthening HEC regional centres and setting up new sub offices, award of fellowships on federalism, degree attestation services at regional offices and joint programs for improving quality of college education etc.
On the other hand, since 2010-11, the first year of flow of greater resources to provinces under the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, provincial spending on education has increased 37% but little funds have been allocated for higher education sector considering it as the responsibility of federal government till the next NFC Award. Currently, the recurring and most of the development expenditure of federal and provincial universities are being met by federal government through HEC. Meanwhile, within last few years about more than 25 new public universities have been announced and established by provincial governments mostly by upgrading existing colleges and without taking into consideration qualified faculty and other necessary requirements including finances.
In addition, the combined budgetary allocation (federal and provincial) and the expenditure at the district level for all tiers of education (primary to higher) is an estimated Rs 504 billion for 2013-14. This amount is nearly 17% higher than last year’s actual spending and represents 8% of the entire budgeted expenditure for 2013-14. The academicians and experts describe it a positive step, as total education budget has increased and expect that each tier of education including higher education would get more share accordingly. But unfortunately, out of the combined budgeted allocation for education, 82% are earmarked for current expenditure (mainly salaries) and only 18% for development expenditure (construction of new facilities, upgrading existing facilities, etc.). In 2012-13, only Rs. 31.3 billion out of total allocated development expenditure on education i.e. Rs 70.3 billion was utilized. It is just 44.52 percent utilization.
As far as legislation on higher education at provincial level is concerned, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed Provincial Higher Education Commission (PHEC) Act during the closing days of previous government which was challenged in Sindh High Court Karachi on the grounds that the provincial act was in conflict with the Constitutional (Article 143 in which no provincial law can be introduced in the presence of the federal law, unless the federal law is amended) and was contrary to the recommendations of the 18th Amendment Implementation Commission as well. Some constitutional experts have suggested that this matter be left with Council of Common Interests.
The new Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has established a working group to deliberate on the issue and present recommendations. The provincial government of Balochistan is reviewing the matter along the same lines. As per its manifesto, ruling PML (N) government supports a strong, autonomous and resourceful HEC at federal level. One of the major developments that took place in higher education sector after 18th amendment is transferal of the powers of appointment of vice chancellors and other administrative matters from Governor (representative of the federal government) to the Chief Minister-elected chief executive of the province. Three provincial assemblies namely; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh have already taken necessary legislative steps in this regard. The vice chancellors are being appointed through Search Committees formed by the respective provincial governments. The academic staff associations, academicians and civil society circles demanded that these search committees should be comprised of relevant experts and appointment of vice chancellors may be ensured through a transparent and merit based mechanism without any political interference. The nominations for university syndicate/senate members may also be ensured on the same lines.
In order to address the challenges of higher education sector especially in the post 18th amendment scenario, a broad based consultation process may be initiated without any further delay with the concerned stakeholders; federal and provincial governments, parliamentarians , vice chancellors, civil society, faculty associations and foreign higher education bodies. A Task Force on Higher Education which is awaiting notification may be notified. The task force would make recommendations to the federal and provincial governments on the role, status and structure of higher education organizations both at federal and provincial level so that new legislations in conformity with 18th Amendment can come in effect at respective level.
The main purpose of all collaborative efforts should be the strengthening of the higher education sector, which has already been suffering a lot within last few years. Best international practices should be emulated and recommendations of stake holders must be taken into consideration. Autonomy of the higher education institutions with necessary checks and balances can ensure that these institutions can serve as the hub of innovation, creativity and research and play their pivotal role in building communities and economies.
[Murtaza Noor is Focal Person of Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences and is associated with higher education sector]