Education sector starved of public funds for too long

May(Dawn): With the new federal budget around the corner, government- funded universities in the twin cities, like other public sector departments, have been busy in figuring out their financial requirements for the next year.

They are hoping the government would honour its pledge, given at high levels, including the president and the prime minister, that allocation for education will be increased to four per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the new budget from the present 2.7 per cent. The Senate Committee on Education, Science and Technology "recommended" so as recently as May 24.

Ms Razina Alam Khan, chairperson of the Senate committee, said that the committee members had forcefully asked the government to fulfil its commitment of 4 per cent increase but emphasised that any increase would bring benefits only when the federal and provincial governments saw to it that the funds were utilised properly and fully.

Background interviews with the officials of the ministry of education, however, revealed that the increase was not expected to be more than 3 per cent.

They argued that making political statements was different from taking practical steps. Decisions regarding the share of competing sectors in the national cake involve many factors.

It's worth mentioning that successive Pakistani governments have always been criticised by international agencies for not offering enough money to the education sector.

Pakistan ranks second among the countries of the world with highest number of out of school children. According to Unesco's 'Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2007', issued last December, 6.5 million children are out of schools in Pakistan.

Nigeria with some 8 million out-of-school children stands first in the hall of shame, and India, with 4.5 million such children, occupies third place after Pakistan.

Successive governments committed themselves to increasing the budget for education sector to four per cent of the GDP, but the present government is the first to take steps in that direction.

The budget for the Higher Education Commission (HEC) witnessed a phenomenal increase from few hundred millions in 2002 to Rs16 billion in 2006. Under various schemes, salaries of university teachers were raised, some getting up to Rs200,000 per month. Similarly, students were offered scholarships.

But soon after the announcement of the budget, the finance division cut down the allocation of the HEC, putting it in a difficult situation.

In the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) 2006-07, Rs16 billion was earmarked for the HEC. The finance ministry reduced it by Rs4.5 billion. Later, the government announced a 15 per cent increase in the salaries of university teachers amounting to Rs1.2 billion, which put additional pressure on the HEC's finances.

Meanwhile, the finance ministry asked HEC to readjust its development projects to divert Rs2 billion to meet its current expenditure.

According to HEC officials, they have achieved 100 per cent utilisation of their budget for the year and set a target of getting around Rs20 billion in the forthcoming PSDP for the commission. They said the HEC needed money for scores of new projects to take the country's higher education to a level where students from Pakistan could compete internationally.

Paradoxically, school and college level education is yet to be given adequate financial assistance. Primary school teachers in Punjab have long been protesting against their dismally low salary structure and increase in their allowances. They climaxed their protest last week by refusing to supervise the annual primary and middle standard exams at the eleventh hour which created law and order situation in many districts.

Despite its repeated announcements, the government is yet to revise service structure of school level teachers to give them a sense of respectability. No wonder, over the years, the teaching profession has become a choice only for the left-overs.

There is no second opinion that for decades our rulers criminally neglected mass education and did not accord education the importance that it occupies in building a sound and progressive society.

By Khawar Ghumman



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