The performance of any higher education system can easily be evaluated; how universities are functioning and contributing as autonomous and empowered centres of learning, ideas, creativity, innovation and academic freedom. In Pakistan, total number of recognised public and private sector universities, has increased to 195 with an additional 113 sub campuses.

During the recent meeting of Vice Chancellors and Rectors of public sector universities held at Islamabad, it was stated that Pakistani universities face financial emergency because of budget cuts in the past three years. The shortfall of recurring budget has increased to Rs.26.9 billion in the current financial year. The crisis was aggravated because of legislated increases in pay & pension for which the government does not provide any additional budget, heavy ongoing expenditure on security arrangements, ineffective financial management at some of the universities and demands from newly established universities. The quality of education has suffered as a result and universities are finding it impossible even to meet mandatory recurring obligations like pay, allowances and pension and fail to provide conducive academic environment to the enrolled students. In Pakistan, the current allocation for higher education is merely 0.25% of the GDP which should be at least one percent as per international standards. This meagre investment is clearly insufficient to cater minimum recurring needs of 116 public sector universities and 81 sub campuses.

Though all the public sector universities are facing severe deficit in their annual budgets some are in a crisis like situation, for instance Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad has, over the years accumulated a deficit of Rs.500 million, COMSATS University Islamabad Rs.600 million and University of Peshawar Rs.700 million. Due to this annual deficit, these universities cannot hire qualified faculty, have difficulties in paying salaries & pensions, purchase necessary lab equipment and support extracurricular activities for positive engagement of students. As unusual practice, even some leading universities have borrowed money from commercial banks to meet their essential obligations. The total estimated recurring budget requirement for the universities during the financial year 2019-20 is Rs.103.55 billion as compared to current allocation of Rs.65 billion

Besides the problems recurring budget, 50% of total allocated development budget which was dully approved by the Parliament of Pakistan, could not be released during the last three years. In addition, about 45 development projects of higher education, worth billions of rupees, have been dropped from PSDP during the financial year 2018-19 which has severely affected the future plans i.e increases in enrolment of students, provision of basic facilities and meeting growing needs of the universities in terms of construction of new academic blocks, labs & hostels.

Another challenge which is being faced by all the public and private sector universities is protection of their legitimate autonomy. During the last few years, procedures introduced by the federal and provincial government entities and departments, including HEC, have become very clumsy, overly bureaucratic and overly intrusive in there dealing with the university affairs. Universities must remain autonomous, governed by their own Acts, Statutes and statutory bodies. Currently, this sanctity is being violated both at federal and provincial levels, causing much criticism, annoyance and resistance among higher education fraternity. HEC and provincial governments need to revisit their mandate through confining their roles as facilitators and supporters to make the higher education institutions more productive and effective in order to get the desired results.

According to the recommendations prepared by the Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan March 2002, universities were termed as pillars of the higher education system. It was clearly stated that universities must have autonomy from all extraneous influences in order to govern and manage their academic, administrative, and financial functions. In particular, universities must have autonomy to develop their academic programmes; recruit, assess, and develop their faculty; and select, train and educate their students. The establishment of HEC was recommended as supportive and facilitator body.

Another problem is the illegal occupation of the university land, for instance, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, a top ranked, federally chartered, prestigious higher education institution of Pakistan has illegal occupants sitting on about 300 acres of its precious land. An anti-encroachment drive, launched a few months back, to end the illegal occupation has also slowed down to ineffective levels. Immediate attention of the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan is requested to address this important issue.

A careful review of policy documents and election manifesto 2018 of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) indicates the highest priority for education and health, notably higher education. This document shows the firm resolve of the party towards making universities autonomous, increase university enrolment by establishing new universities & enlarging existing capacity. The PTI policy document even encourages to create partnerships with international universities to improve quality of teaching and research and remove political influence and establish an independent, transparent mechanism to select vice chancellors and senior administrators.

Having governments at federal level and three provinces, it is high time for PTI to fulfill its commitment towards promotion of higher education through ensuring the projected requirement of Rs.103.55 billion for the coming year (2019-20), timely releases to higher education sector and respecting autonomy of the universities. Higher education sector should also be exempted from any budgetary cuts as policy decision. The universities should also invest in the efficiency and transparency of university operations, financial management as well as in fundraising programs. Instead of announcement of establishment of new general universities existing universities need to be strengthened.

It is also hoped that the Task Force on Knowledge Economy headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, would also pay special attention towards resolving these important issues. The development of the knowledge economy cannot be materialized without ensuring universities as autonomous organizations and provision of required resources on priority basis.