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Karachi University hit hard by cut in HEC funds

Karachi, June 28, 2008: The federal finance ministry's recent decision to stop the release of the Higher Education Commission's (HEC) fourth quarterly instalment of development and recurring grant of over Rs8 billion has pushed the University of Karachi into a grave financial crisis.

Research work, which was already hampered by the power outages in recent months, has virtually ground to a halt while a number of projects, particularly those relating to new infrastructural facilities, face an uncertain future.

Sources say that the recent announcement that contractual employees will be regularised, and the 20 per cent raise in government employees' salaries announced in the budget, will add to the burden on the cash-strapped university, which made many such appointments in recent years. It is being predicted that unless the HEC comes to the university's rescue, KU will not be able to pay utility bills or staff salaries, and will fall into debt.

The public sector university runs over 50 departments and research institutes, and boasts about 700 faculty members, a large number of non-teaching staff and approximately 20,000 students. Inside sources say that the institution is barely meeting its expenses these days and desperately awaiting relief from the HEC, which has not yet released the fourth quarterly instalment of Rs25 million that was due in April.

"The HEC recently informed us that it is releasing some amount but I don't know how much," said Syed Mohammed Khalid, the university's director finance. "It is believed that there will be a 25 to 30 per cent cut in the instalment due. The meagre amount that will be sent falls under the funds worth Rs1.5 billion, which the prime minister recently announced for over 50 public sector universities."

Referring to the situation as "critical," Mr Khalid said that the institution already faced a deficit of Rs27 million and a reduction in its grant would amount to pushing the institution into debt. "The HEC has been raising KU's grant every year and the university has made a lot of progress," he remarked. "KU received Rs575 million in 2005-06, which was increased to Rs790 million in 2007-08. However, we did not receive the amount for the raise due in staff salaries last year and it was expected that the HEC would allocate Rs1,086 million for 2008-09."

'The dark ages'
Mr Khalid believes that the recent developments have come as a rude shock to all public sector universities. "It now seems as though KU will not even get last year's amount and if that happens, staff salaries will not be able to be paid. The 20 per cent increase in salaries announced in the recent budget cannot be met by the university in the current situation," he commented, pointing out that the institution's only source of income is student fees, which have not been raised since last year.

"The university collected Rs379 million as fees in 2007-08. We have no immediate plans to raise fees this year, but if the situation persists we will have to revise all our expenditures, which means that all ongoing works developmental or otherwise will be affected."

The president of the Karachi University Teachers' Society (Kuts), Dr Aqeel Ahmed, said that it appeared as though all the progress made in recent years would come to a halt and the university would regress to the time when it had only enough money to pay salaries and the concept of research was alien.

"This situation will push our universities into the dark ages," he warned. "We are being asked to generate our own revenue, which means the commercialisation of academic affairs. The faculty of social sciences will suffer the most, and it will also lead to a brain-drain where employees will be forced to work in poor conditions."

Dr Ahmed said that all universities were contemplating observing a black day as a mark of protest against the government's decision. "No doubt the country faces an economic slump," he conceded, "but education should not be compromised at this critical juncture."

Lack of planning alleged
During the past seven years, KU has witnessed growth in infrastructural facilities and research institutes. Most of these projects await completion and complete functionality due to the lack of basic facilities and funds.

Such projects include the department of food science and technology and the National Centre for Proteomics, whose buildings were inaugurated a few months ago but whose facilities are not yet functional. The Umer Basha Institute of Technology and Dr Feroz Ahmed Institute of Mass Communications are in a similar situation, while work on the construction of the department of biotechnology is incomplete.

Asked about the matter, the director finance said that "these projects will suffer, directly or indirectly, from the current situation, but we are trying to sort the problems out using our own resources."

Sources say that all problems related to new infrastructure were mainly caused by a lack of planning and bad management on part of the university administration. Most of these facilities, which were initiated under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), couldn't be completed within the allocated amount because the university failed to start the projects on time.

How much the financial affairs of KU are transparent can be gauged from the fact that no audit report has ever been presented in the meetings of the bodies concerned during the last few years, nor does the budget document contain the details of the PSDP projects.

A significant lapse of time caused an increase in the construction cost of different projects and the university, instead of asking for money from the HEC, diverted its own funds for their completion.

Sources add that this was done on the request of the building and utilisation committee in the hope that the amount would be later reimbursed by the HEC.

However, this hope has not materialised so far. Also, there is a big question mark over the future smooth running of these new facilities as they were developed without taking into account the chronic problem of electricity outages.

"Instead of spending money on the construction of new infrastructure, it would have been more appropriate to invest the money on strengthening the existing departments and setting up a power generation and distribution system at the university. Persistent power outages have become a major constraint in carrying out research in recent years, besides causing huge losses to the institution," a teacher said.

By Faiza Ilyas (Dawn)

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