Reliable funding is the single most important component that makes a university independent. Government universities rely on government funding for most of their expenses, even if they charge some fees and can get some private sector and provincial funding. Even private universities must have other sources of income than what they can charge in fees and receive in donation, especially if they teach and carry out research that require expensive laboratories and equipment in fields like medicine and engineering. In comparison, the social sciences, humanities and management sciences are cheap; hence, more courses in those fields in private universities.

This year, there is a funding crisis in higher education in Pakistan. The 74 public sector universities rely on funding from the federal government, notably the Higher Education Commission (HEC), at least until 2014, according to the Council of Common Interests’ decision. The HEC was established a decade ago directly under the PM and today it is attached to the Ministry of Professional and Technical Training. It is widely hailed for impressive results from its early years, building on the work of the University Grants Committee. The number of students has doubled to about a million, and about 100,000 teachers. Major quality improvements have been made with better libraries and training of teachers. The duration of the basic degrees has been made longer. Some Pakistani universities have been ranked among the very good universities in Asia and the world.

The current funding difficulties have nothing to do with substantive matters in the HEC or the universities. The Commission is in difficulties due to a cash-strapped government, which has disbursed only a portion of the budgeted funds, making it impossible for the HEC to keep its commitments towards the some 10,000 students on scholarships at home and abroad; pay salaries for well over 120 foreign staff members on contracts; and disburse funds for a number of ongoing research projects. As always, it is the youngest and smallest institutions in the remote areas that suffer most. This means that the government universities in the country are far from independent.

Donor funds can also be tricky. The World Bank and other donors provide credits or grants for investments and earmarked running costs. I hope the conditionalities are acceptable to the HEC, and better than the support at least to one private university, notably that of a foreign support to a university in Islamabad where the donors, reportedly, interfered in the tenure of the Vice Chancellor. But isn’t that fair enough, we may ask, because, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, as the proverb goes. Or, in simple language: if you pay for someone’s services you can dictate what the person should do.

For universities that is not quite true, at least not if we want professionalism to play a major role. Yet, when it is the government that is financing higher education, it has the right to decide the volume of support to the various sectors of society, including higher education and other education levels. It also has the right to give broad policy guidelines, including prioritisation of types and focus of degree courses, number of students and where the education and training should be given, and other issues, often based on human resource development plans and policies. The government should ascertain the availability of qualified teachers, with the right profiles as for gender, experience and professional thinking, and assure high quality in the qualification of candidates. It should also take into consideration the role of private institutions and overseas training.

But who should shoulder the government’s tasks?

Most countries have ministries of education at the national level, with certain tasks decentralised to lower administrative levels. Research councils also play important roles, partly with the central administration and partly with senior academics making decisions. In future, there is need for establishing research councils in Pakistan, as part of the HEC’s tasks.

In Norway, higher education is a national task, while secondary education belongs to the counties (provinces) and primary education to the municipalities (districts). At all levels, there are government guidelines and funding. There are very few private schools and universities, and they are never better than the public ones. But they may be valuable for ideological, religious, historical and other reasons. In Pakistan, I believe there should be fewer private institutions, and more and better government ones.

Pakistan gives low priority to education. One may excuse that in the past. But in today’s world, it cannot be excused any longer. When less than two percent of GDP goes to education, and it is a general guideline by international organisations that it should be at least four percent, we are not doing the right thing. Higher education has done relatively well in the past 10 years. And a large proportion of the increase in education budgets, especially under President Musharraf, went to higher education. Since the total education budget is small, the amounts are not as large as they need to be.

Only some 11 percent of the education sector spending goes to higher education, while international organisations recommend double that percentage. In a country like Pakistan, we must hasten to add that higher education can only grow if the other levels also grow. The vice chancellors and HEC have recently argued for the overall growth of the education sector.

But who is really to decide? Who should prioritise within the higher education sector, leaving aside the broad policies and guidelines I mentioned above? There is no Ministry of Education at the national level, but the provinces do have their ministries. In higher education, there is a Ministry of Professional and Technical Training. The HEC is, probably, more like a ministry than a commission; well, there is also a tradition for independent commissions in other fields. In the long run, the HEC must be given a clear, long-term mandate. The provinces on their side must upgrade education and higher education, with central policies and guidelines and local initiatives. All provinces are many times the size of a county in Norway. With the ongoing devolution, provinces and districts assume greater roles. Higher education, research and development, is a field that needs clear national policies due to the high cost in educating candidates, and in the complexity and overall importance of higher education in society.

It is not only at the national level that there is requirement for independence in higher education. At all levels, professionals should make most decisions. Vice chancellors have a key leadership role, but deans and department heads must also be allowed to make decisions; after all, they run the actual teaching and research programmes, sometimes with colleagues from other universities at home and abroad. And finally, students should have a say, partly to be trained in how to reason and decide about research and teaching issues, including costs. Soon they will be in charge.

Decisions about funding to universities are a complex. Most but not all decisions should be made by professional researchers and teachers, with a coordinating body like the HEC. There must be broad debate in the university communities, and politicians and laymen do also have their roles since education affects all of us. It remains a mystery about Pakistan’s low allocation of funds to education, including the current higher education setback. People have a right to education and the society has a duty to secure funding. The promise is that there will be a direct development return to society.

n    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.