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Dreams of a knowledge economy

Some questions for the political leadership of the country after the HEC had to suspend or halt several of its programmes due to a lack of funds

Dreams of a knowledge economy

The HEC has requested Rs103 billion for current expenditures in its 2019-20 budget. News is that only Rs58.5 billion will be approved in the budget. The fate of the development budget is less certain at this time but is certain to be slashed as well.

Although the past decade has seen years in which the HEC received approval for its entire requested budget, there have also been years when its approved budget was less than it requested. As the first accompanying graph shows, in absolute terms, without any adjustments for inflation, the HEC’s current expenditure budget has seen a steady uptrend from 2008 to 2019. There have been year-over-year reductions in the development budget though, particularly around the time of the global recession.

However, 2019-2020 will be the first year in which the HEC will see a 10 percent reduction in its current expense budget compared to the previous year, and less than in either of the two preceding years, which is unprecedented. Furthermore, consider the growing ranks of HEC scholars returning from abroad, many of which are joining universities on the HEC’s Tenure Track System (or TTS). The second graph shows the growing number of faculty members appointed on TTS which are adding further strain on the HEC budget.

As a result, the HEC had to suspend or halt several of its programmes. For example, according to the HEC’s own website, the Startup Research Grant programme that enabled new faculty members to hit the ground running on joining a university has already been shuttered. According to faculty members on an unofficial Facebook group of TTS faculty members, this year the HEC did not announce its annual ‘Best Teacher / Researcher award’ programme, hinting at another shuttered programme.

Presenting work at conferences is a core element of academic research and requires supporting travel grants, which were provided by the HEC Conference Travel Grant programme. The official line is that the programme has been ‘temporarily suspended’ because of some restructuring. Information from a senior HEC official and several applicants is that this programme too has been discontinued for several months now. Non-academics should understand these conferences are not the luxurious junkets they may be under other government departments. Even when the programme was active, the amount contributed by the HEC sometimes required faculty members to partially contribute to travel expenses from their own pockets. Word from a former senior HEC official is that in the last few months, six HEC programs have been shuttered due to a lack of funds.

In the past, pet education projects that had political backing would receive disproportionately large allocations of funds even in the direst of circumstances.

All this is happening while TTS faculty members saw their last raise in 2015. Since then, BPS salaries have nearly reached parity with TTS while also enjoying the security of a pension. Understandably, TTS faculty feel like they have been the victim of a bait-and-switch. Universities have little say in the rules and regulations of the tenure track system created by the HEC and have no control over or stake in it. The management team at the HEC that introduced the TTS system has long been replaced. It has been unable to maintain the remunerative advantage and attraction it held for faculty willing to be active researchers.

In the government, neither politicians nor bureaucracy, nobody cares about a scattered constituency of a few thousand people. In short, TTS is an orphan that is owned by no one. To pile on, in a recent broadcast of a Q&A session, the HEC Chairman hinted at the classification of university into tiers, and that the top tier of research universities will have all their faculty members appointed on TTS, not realising that at this time this is viewed as a punishment, rather than a reward.

Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, currently serving as chairperson on the Prime Minister’s Taskforce for Science and Technology, must have seen the same budget figures and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister office with the same concerns. Eventually, he received a rather blunt reply from the HEC Chairman, claiming that none of its programmes have been stopped or suspended. However, the HEC’s own webpages for at least some of these programmes belie this claim. Then why the denials and secrecy?

This is not the first time a department did not receive its requested budget. According to someone with experience in these matters on behalf of the HEC, come budget time, it takes persistence, patience, stubbornness, cajoling, sweet-talking, begging, and/or some arm-twisting to get things done at the Ministry of Finance, which requires some familiarity in dealing with the bureaucracy of our country. According to the same person, however well-intentioned, hard-working and qualified the present HEC Chairman and his team may be, they have little experience and inclination to do so.

In the past, pet education projects that had political backing would receive disproportionately large allocations of funds even in the direst of circumstances. In this government’s tenure, the prime minister has announced the establishment of the Islamabad National University in the former building of the PM Secretariat. And so, while the HEC and university vice-chancellors are huddling to figure ways to make ends meet, and considering withdrawing bus transportation and hostel accommodation subsidies from students, somehow there will still be enough money to fund the prime minister’s vanity project. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The pie is never big enough. No one gets the budget they ask for. Therefore, more important than the size of the pie is how you slice it, which is the ultimate policy implementation tool and shows your priorities. If budget cuts are necessary this year, will they be implemented as budget sequestration (i.e., across the board where each head loses the same percentage), will they be selective, or follow some other formula? We shall have to wait for a fuller picture.

All I have are questions for the political leadership of this country. We have been hearing about Pakistan moving towards developing into a knowledge economy since 2000. Do we still want it or not? Are we just going to wish for it, or are we going to put our money where our mouth is? Has any country in the history of the world ever developed into a knowledge economy without fixing its education system in general, and its university system in particular? Are we or are we not going to take practical steps to develop it? Are all of us working in this country’s education sector just wasting our time? Are you wasting our time? Will we all be better off giving up and just flipping plots in the Bahrias / DHAs of our country? Decide, now, because we need to know.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque

Ayesha Razzaque
The author is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University. She may be reached at [email protected]

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