The Prime Minister’s announcement of the “largest undergraduate scholarship programme launched in the history of Pakistan” is surely positive but does nothing to improve the structure of the higher education system in Pakistan. It is a grand gesture, but in policy terms is more in line with the PML-N government’s laptop disbursement programme; individual students will benefit massively but the overall higher education system and employment opportunities for university graduates will not see a substantial improvement.

The scholarships will undoubtedly ease the financial burden on parents of undergraduate students enrolled in college but lifting the standard of higher education in the country takes a lot more than this. Improving access to higher education for all potential students and providing better quality of university education needs to be made a priority if the government is really interested in making progressive changes to the education system.

Given that the budget for higher education – like many other human developmental sectors – saw a sharp cut in this year’s annual budget, one wonders what the point of all of this is. Are the scholarships enough to compensate for the loss of funding for public universities when they are already far behind international standards? Pakistani universities are riddled with problems, from a lack of facilities to a critical dearth of original research, and with the well much drier than it has been before, the standards might fall even lower.

The government has denied public universities funding but are practically handing out that money to individual students instead, which is a mistake. One can safely assume that the scholarships are the government’s policy decision for the ultimate aim of improving higher education in the country. This is a flawed policy mechanism and the government’s decision to follow through with this tells us that they are either unaware this shift in priorities – which reflects incompetence – or they are looking for easy ways to increase their vote bank; something PTI has condemned time and again.

Instead of handing out scholarships through Ehsaas, the money allocated could instead be given to the universities to improve facilities, provide funding for research and most importantly, subsidise the education of students. The government does not need to get involved in this; adding a new dimension to Ehsaas, spending money on manpower and wasting resources trying to determine who deserves these scholarships and who does not. Universities already have mechanisms for that. Just provide them the funds to do their jobs effectively.