Higher education's share of Pakistan's overall education budget should double to 20% in the coming decade, according to a new science, technology and innovation policy approved by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. But independent observers doubt the claim will be fulfilled.
The new policy assigns a central role to universities in bringing about socio-economic development through scientific research and innovation. It aims to reform universities into centres of knowledge creation rather than merely degree-awarding institutions.
The 10-year vision for science, technology and innovation recommends that university students be given exposure to industry, that technology parks be established on campuses, and that more science and research jobs be created in universities, among other things.
However, with no funding mechanism defined in the policy, academics fear the programmes it recommends will not be properly financed - especially given the severe cutbacks to higher education budgets in Pakistan in the past three years.
The new proposals also include expanding higher education access, developing specialised research laboratories, better salaries for researchers and strengthening existing human resource programmes undertaken by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). It also seeks to improve teaching methods and systems in higher education in line with international standards.
University World News has accessed the policy document, although it will not be made public until approved by the federal cabinet.
It outlines five clearly defined policy actions related to higher education including increasing access to scientific, engineering and technical degrees, enhancing existing facilities and establishing new institutions, improving the quality of education through the provision of qualified academics, attracting talented students into academic careers, developing a system for increasing industry-universities linkages and promoting applied research.
In an interview with University World News Atta-ur-Rahman, former head of the HEC, said: "The role of the universities in the promotion of science and technology is universally acknowledged, as research and development cannot thrive without a strong higher education base.
"I urge the government to also announce funding for the greater role for universities this policy envisages, for the socioeconomic development of Pakistan."
Atta-ur-Rahman, who was Pakistan's science minister from 2000-02 and chaired the HEC for eight years, resigned in October 2008 over higher education funding issues that erupted with the change of the government that year. He is credited with reforming Pakistan's higher education sector and increasing its budgets massively.
Atta-ur-Rahman told University World News: "The higher education budget for 2011 should have been PKR30 billion (US$0.34 billion) as it was PKR22 billion in 2009. But contrary to growth plans the higher education budget was slashed every year, coming down to PKR14 billion in 2011."
He asked: "How then can universities play their role in the scientific advancement of the country, a must for development?"
Pakistan's government decreased funding to higher education in the face of high inflation and massive floods in 2010, which hit one-fifth of the country and resulted in funds being diverted to relief and rehabilitation.
Pro-Vice-chancellor of Karachi University, Shahan Urooj Kazmi, toldUniversity World News: "The government kitty faces stress as the financial situation has not changed from previous years.
"Given new developments on economic fronts, such as the end of government borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and possible cuts in US aid to Pakistan, our government might not be able to provide funds for higher education initiatives outlined in the new science policy."
Economic statistics from international agencies and local institutions underscore the doubts academics have raised with regard to realising pledges made in the new policy.
According to Pakistan's Board of Investment's 2010 statistics report, the country's import bill increased from US$10.3 billion in 2002 to US$31 billion in 2010, showing a negative trade balance of -11.4%. Foreign Direct Investment was US$5.15 million in 2007 and dropped to US$2.2 million in 2010.
Further, the value of the country's currency is depreciating, dropping from PKR61 against the dollar in 2002 to PKR89 now. Gross domestic product growth declined from 8.4% in 2005 to 4.1% in 2010 while inflation rose from 3.4% in 2002 to 13% last year.
Meanwhile, the number of higher education institutions has grown from two at the time of independence in 1947 to 128 this year, largely due to massive higher education funding from 2000 to 2008, during which the sector's growth was unprecedented.
"The question before the nation and the masters of its destiny is whether to sustain what Pakistan has achieved or let the system collapse," Atta-ur-Rahman told University World News.