Pakistani universities suspend operations amid soaring inflation

Huge hike in costs plunges institutions into dire situation as academics call on government to urgently raise higher education spending

April 16, 2023
 A pilot stretches a hot balloon air as it inflates to illustrate Pakistani universities close temporarily amid soaring inflation
Source: Getty

Several Pakistani universities have closed temporarily after being left unable to pay staff salaries due to soaring inflation – and more could be on the way to closing, academics there have warned.

In February, Pakistan’s consumer price index rose 31.5 per cent on the previous year, its highest annual rate in nearly five decades, with food and transportation costs climbing more than 45 per cent, Reuters reported. Across the country, universities that were already struggling are under acute pressure.

In a statement on 8 April, the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA), a faculty body, expressed “grave concern” over the situation, noting that “many” institutions have been forced to stop issuing salaries due to budget shortfalls.

“It has become increasingly difficult for universities to meet their expenses and even to pay monthly salaries. As a result, many faculty and staff members are suffering and unable to make ends meet,” the group said.

It called on Pakistan’s federal government to boost universities’ annual recurring and development budgets to “at least” PKR 500 billion (£1.42 billion) in this year’s budget. Provincial governments were also urged to increase grant aid to institutions under their jurisdiction. Pakistan currently spends 2.3 per cent of its GDP on education – well below the 4 per cent agreed by Unesco member states in 2015.

Kaleem Ullah Bareach, president of FAPUASA and chair of the history department at the University of Balochistan, Quetta, told Times Higher Education that the crisis has been in the making for years, with universities often delaying payments to their employees. The two largest universities in his province, including his own institution, have been closed for weeks.

“This is the sad situation of all the universities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially the University of Peshawar, where the teachers, officers and the employees have been forced to go on a complete strike,” he said.

Dr Bareach said he knew of a handful of other institutions that could be forced to close in coming days.

He blamed the “extremely insufficient” allocation of government funding for education, which sets aside PKR 102 billion for salaries and PKR 46 billion for development – an amount meant to cover 200,000 employees and pensions at roughly 170 public universities.

In Balochistan, where the annual budget exceeds PKR 720 billion, the provincial government has allocated only PKR 2.5 billion to its 13 public universities, he said.

Dr Bareach was especially worried about the knock-on effects on learners in the province, many of whom cannot afford tuition fees. While some of them currently receive remuneration from provincial departments, he believes such students need to be fully subsidised by the government.

“The low per-student spending also leads to a lack of accessibility to higher education for students from low-income families. It can also result in a higher dropout rate, as students may not have the financial means to continue their education,” he said.

The flood that devastated Pakistan last year hit the province hard, pushing many families dependent on agriculture and livestock into poverty. For rural students living far from their institutions, the costs are especially hard to bear, Dr Bareach said. 

Murtaza Noor, national coordinator of the Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences in Pakistan, shared his colleague’s concerns.

“Education suffers a lot, it is not a priority,” he said. He noted that the government had encouraged universities to turn to industry to generate more capital – a good idea, in theory.

“Instructions from the [Higher Education Commission] that universities should work on commercial properties, get buildings rented, etc…but there’s no proper legislation…for such commercial use,” he said.

While some universities may explore this avenue, Dr Bareach warned that continued low government spending on education would have long-lasting repercussions.

“The education sector serves as the backbone of the economy,” he said. “Neglecting it can have dire consequences for the future of the nation.”

THE contacted Pakistan’s government for comment.

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