Privatisation of higher education

By Zubeida Mustafa

The Pakistan government is considering the privatisation of the universities. The new education policy, which has been on the anvil for an inexplicably long time, is expected to lay down the guidelines for the establishment of private universities and colleges.

This step is being taken at the prodding of the World Bank which perceives privatisation as the magic cure for all economic ills. Being totally dependent on the loans it receives from the aid-giving agencies, the Pakistan government feels it has no other option but to obey the Bank’s edict. But will this solve the problems the country faces in the higher education sector?

Pakistani universities are admittedly in the grip of a crisis. Starved of funds and stricken by the cancer of campus violence and indiscipline, these institutions of higher learning are in a state of decay. Research has slowed down and academic standards have fallen steeply. A measure of the academic health of the universities is the student- teacher ratio. It was 10:1 in 1972,14:1 in 1982 and is 17:1 today at the national level, but varies from one institution to another. The generally accepted ratio is 12:1. ‘

The World Bank feels that the privatisation of the universities would help in two ways. First it would allow the funds earmarked for these institutions to be diverted to primary education which badly needs a boost if the education base is to be broadened and the literacy rate is to be raised from the dismal 30 per cent as at present. Pakistan is trailing behind even Bhutan and Bangladesh in literacy rates. India and Sri Lanka are way ahead.

Secondly, the World Bank believes that the private sector would be able to take care of university education in the country. Since it is believed that all those who go to university come from the affluent classes the new policy would require the students to bear the real cost of education.

The fact, however, is that the privatisation of the universities could prove to be disastrous. As far as primary education is concerned, it has already been receiving the biggest chunk of the education budget — more than 25 per cent. Admittedly, this has not solved the problem of low enrolment ratio in the 5-9 year age group. But will the additional three billion rupees or so diverted from the university sector change the stat« of primary education in the country? What is needed to meet the goal of universal enrolment is not just funds, but also political will, mass motivation, a correct strategy and the efficient use of resources. Whatever shortfall in funds which is still there should then be made up by substantially raising educational spending which is dismally low at 2.2 per cent of the GNP.

If the government were to increase its allocations for education, there would be enough money to go around. One sub-sector would not have to be starved to feed the other.

Handing over the universities to the private sector (presuming buyers can be found) will not solve any problems. In the first place, it is unlikely that any private individual or organisation can generate enough resources to make a university economically viable. The fee structure of the two private universities in the country — Rs 102,000 per annum by LUMS and Rs 43,000 a year by Aga Khan University — fails to fully cover the costs. They have to draw subsidies from other sources.

Hence any university which depends on private sources for its funding will have to peg its fees at a much higher level than at present. Even the universities in the public sector which are by no means elitist require huge amounts to operate, let alone the capital investment. Thus, the University of Punjab which has the highest enrolment in the country has an annual recurring expenditure budget of approximately Rs 140 million (for 10,000 students). At this rate, would a private university be affordable for the majority of the university-going students in Pakistan? Obviously not. A small minority would be able to pay the high fee, but this minority might include a sizable number who would not be eligible from the point of view of merit, while many of the students who qualify would not have the means to pay for university education.

Therefore, the inevitable result would be a drastic fall in university enrolment and a decline in their standards. Apart from lowering the output of university graduates, the fall in enrolment would also adversely affect the economic viability of the institutions of higher learning. It is estimated that the per student cost can be reduced by half if enrolment is doubled.

There is another vital function which universities are expected to perform that could be affected by privatisation, namely research. It is well known that the private sector finances only the kind of research that promises to fetch profit. Given the private sector’s dependence on foreign technology, its investment in R&D has been very negligible.

Even abroad, governments have traditionally been the major sponsors of R&D at universities. When they economise on research spending, it affects these institutions negatively. In a letter to The Times (London), 20 renowned academics from the top universities of Britain pointed out the decrease in public investment on research under the 12 years of Conservative government. This was not matched by a corresponding rise in industrially funded research. As a result, there has been a “dramatic deterioration in the quality and depth of British science”, the dons wrote. They supported their claim with tangible evidence. In 1974-79 British scientists won six Nobel Prizes. In 1986-91 Britain produced only one Nobel laureate in science.

Pakistan’s dismally low spending on research will be reduced further if universities are privatised. They would then be required to show a profit on their research to justify any significant investment.

A more pragmatic approach would be for the government to start exploring measures to generate more resources for the universities, while retaining them in the public sector. This is possible with a little effort and planning.

The first step has already been taken. The ridiculously low tuition fees which previously covered barely nine per cent of the operational costs have been raised. The Karachi university has only recently increased its fees on an average by Rs 115 per semester. This works out to an increase of about 35 per cent.

What is significant is that the fee escalation has caused no public outcry as was feared by the university management. Even today many of the students would be frittering away more money on trivialities than the Rs 406 they pay as tuition fee for a semester.

The charges can be gradually raised further to make the fee structure more realistic. In order to ensure that indigence doesn’t debar an otherwise eligible student, a system of scholarships and freeships should be simultaneously instituted.

Most important of all, the universities should also mobilise funds from other sources. They could raise donations from philanthropists and industrialists. The universities could also undertake studies and assignments from interested parties such as industries, business and even the government itself for an appropriate fee.

They must also make an effort to increase internal efficiency to reduce costs. Thus, the use of space and laboratory and library facilities should be optimised by introducing evening courses. A cost analysis of all supporting and ancillary services such as the transport, hostel, printing press, etc. should be carried out to determine how they can be operated more economically and efficiently.

The size of the non-teaching staff of the universities should also be trimmed and rationalised to make it cost efficient and curtail overheads. The disparity in the ratio between the teaching and administration staff of various universities is enormous and difficult to explain. On the one hand, the Islamic International University had in 1986-87, 658 non-teaching staff and 88 teaching staff (a ratio of 7:1) for 388 students.

On the other, the university of Peshawar managed with 1491 non-teaching staff and 588 teaching stuff (2:1) for 9,000 students. The corresponding figures for Karachi university in the same year were 1,338 non-teaching staff and 433 teachers (3:1) for 8,000 students.

It must, however, be emphasised that a strategy of making the universities more self-supporting should not absolve the government of its responsibility of financing higher education in the country. The purpose of generating more funds from non-government sources should be to improve the quality of university education and, at the same time, keep the cost within the reach of the students of average means.

Source: Dawn, 14-04-1992