Budget 2020-21 was approved amidst the clamour of the opposition and the chaos of COVID-19. In these wretched times when the economy was faltering and the health system was choked due to an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases, a people-friendly budget wasn’t being anticipated. Among many subjects, the budget for higher education had also been a matter of extensive debate and discussion among circles of educationists and on social media.

With a slight increase in the current federal HEC development budget under the PSDP, 29.4 billion rupees was allocated as compared to 29 billion in 2019-20. Alongside this, a recurring grant of Rs64 billion rupees has also been allocated to the federal HEC budget for fiscal year 2020-21. Now that the final budgetary numbers are with us, the nuance in the debate is also evident. Is the current allocated budget adequate for federal HEC to devise structural and development programmes to improve quality education and research in public sector universities of Pakistan? The answer is rather convoluted.

Dissecting the issue of budgetary allocation for education, reports show that Pakistan allocates significantly less than three percent of its annual budget to education, whereas UNESCO recommends that developing countries ought to allocate at least four percent of GDP to education. Pakistan’s spending on education as a percentage of GDP remains among the lowest in the region. By comparison, Malaysia spends 4.97 percent, South Korea 5.01 percent, and India 3.2 percent. Bangladesh has allocated 15 percent of its total GDP in its current budget for education. In the QS World University Ranking 2021, three Pakistani universities achieved a place in the top 500 universities as compared to nine universities from India.

After the issue of low budgetary numbers for education, the 18th Amendment also didn’t do as well for higher education in Pakistan as was envisioned. With the 18th Amendment, the subject of the HEC was devolved to provinces. It would have been a beneficial idea, had powers, functions and resources been smoothly shared with provinces right after devolution. It was 2018 when these subjects were finalised with provinces. Consequently, Sindh and Punjab developed and strengthened their own commissions after 2012 but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still has a department instead of a commission. Balochistan continues to struggle to establish the commission of higher education due to inadequate human resources; and thus works under the guidelines of the federal HEC.

Within the allocated budget, a lion’s share is required for already ongoing developmental schemes and new initiatives such as research grants, funding for faculty and new initiatives. On the other hand, if we delve deeper, improvement in the quality of higher education and structural changes do not need big budgetary numbers. Introducing concrete policies for universities will certainly improve the quality of research. First, university-industry liaison is a fundamental component of bringing research products to markets in this impressionable age. Without the support of industries, expecting innovation, employment and economic stability is living in a fool’s paradise. The concept of the knowledge economy in Pakistan is directly dependent on the university-industry liaison. Second, HEC is cognisant of a myriad businesses operating around the country which produce MS, MPhil and PhD theses by simply rephrasing old studies and publications. These businesses charge a certain amount and produce ready-made theses which are then defended and jobs are obtained on their basis. There are many university teachers who have utilised a ready-made thesis and now have permanent jobs. Such teachers cannot help others in their research. This damages the quality of research. Knowing that plagiarism is an issue, HEC has so far, not done much to curb this crime. In order to pull out research from choppy waters of “intellectual crime” in Pakistan, HEC must establish a rigorous, transparent, uniform and centralised system of plagiarism control to improve the quality of theses and research.

Third, capacity building of teachers is necessary especially in the times of digitisation. As long as teaching pedagogies are not improved and assessment mechanisms are not made compatible to modern needs, the rotting culture in universities couldn’t be quashed.

Fourth, HEC should form a committee in each university on innovative teaching pedagogies, its monitoring and evaluation. Such university committees should also include members from faculties’ administration, experts in the areas, professionals, government officials, publishing houses, industry representatives and students.

Fifth, HEC should make it obligatory for universities to initiate public-private partnerships on research projects. MoUs between local private-public universities should be signed to benefit from research centres. Stimulated by a burgeoning demand that the public sector is unable to meet, private sector institutions currently accommodate almost a quarter of enrolment in higher education. Private institutions are particularly active in the fields of business administration, computer science, and information technology, where employer demand is high.

With the current budgetary allocations, it is tough for federal HEC to continue its expansion policy as stated by Chairman HEC, however, a good number of initiatives can be taken with a limited budget to bring about the quality in the higher education sector. HEC also needs to work on a reformation policy alongside expansion. Performance-based grants should be given to universities. As HEC thoroughly reviewed the commission funding formula for universities, it decided that total allocation will be treated as base plus need grants, accounting for 85 percent of the total allocation, while the remaining 15 percent will be treated as a performance grant, allocated on the basis of the number of publications, the number and amount of research grants received, as well as the number of PhD faculty and students. The need is to strictly implement this policy that doesn’t need a giant budget. Higher education is an intellectual revolution. Concrete and tangible efforts must be dedicated to uplift the standard of research and education in universities.