If the Pakistan Army can balance its various commercial ventures alongside its primary duty — then so, too, can universities
Last week, a friend sent me a notification issued by a Pakistani university, regarding the latter’s financial stringency. The university’s competent authority demonstrated its incompetence by ordering superficial measures aimed at cutting expenditure. This only becomes effective when efforts to generate income are already firmly in place.
Pakistan’s universities claim to be academically autonomous. Yet little is done to pursue financial autonomy to the extent that government subsidies are done away with. They also complain of interference from political parties, especially since the passing of the Eighteenth amendment. Which, they say, has given even more power to Chief Ministers to appoint university heads. One way to circumvent this would to be to ensure that we are no longer at the mercy of provincial and federal governments to secure both recurring and non-recurring funds. Financial independence is key to ending such undue meddling.
Universities have two options before them to generate funds. The first one is the external source in the shape of funding from the government (or via the Higher Education Commission). The other is the internal source. For the sake of easier understanding, allow me to divide the internal source of financing into two categories: academic and non-academic.
The primary focus has traditionally been on the former, usually by way of increasing tuition fees. Yet in a country where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line it remains debatable whether or not this is feasible. Other academic sources extend to research grants, student loans and scholarships sponsored by both national and international organisations.
Now let us turn our attention to non-academic sourcing of funds. This is not a new idea in itself. The biggest edge enjoyed by most public sector universities is the large plots of land in prime urban locations in their name. Thus they can build commercial plazas, conference and wedding banquet halls which are then rented out. Bannu University boasts hundreds of rented shops in front of its city campus, representing a permanent source of income. Peshawar University has sufficient land at the resort area of its Baragali campus to do something similar. Such commercial ventures can be undertaken without risking the academic environment.
Some universities have thousands canals of cultivated lands (such as Gomal University), which can generate sufficient money from crops and dairy farming along with research centres linked to food sciences and agriculture. One more alternative may be to try and secure a share of royalties from local natural resources. Though it must be said that this can often be a lengthy and arduous process. Nevertheless, I turn here to the example of Karak University, which enjoys as a permanent source of income royalties from oil and gas companies operating in the district. Universities usually have sufficient space to organise different sporting events, also representing a good income opportunity. This is not to overlook university laboratories that may be rented out for commercial research purposes, such as in the areas of HCV, HIV and typhoid. In short, universities need to create linkages between academia and industry to secure much needed additional revenue.
Pakistan’s higher education institutes have the capacity to run their own hospitals, banks and credit unions. Indeed, all the big American universities have already gone down this path. And well-off alumni should be encouraged to donate funds by sponsoring different academic activities and buildings in their former universities.
The biggest edge enjoyed by most public sector universities is the large plots of land in prime urban locations in their name. Thus they can build commercial plazas, conference and wedding banquet halls which are then rented out
These alternative non-academic sources of funding should be prioritised in the struggle for financial autonomy. But one might argue that non-academics are not the domain of academic institutions. Yet this does not hold if we look at the commercialisation of education through the prism of globalisation. For quality research and teaching, universities need internally generated permanent source of income other than current sources of funding that rest exclusively upon academic activities.
If our universities realise financial autonomy — intellectual self-determination will certainly follow suit. Meaning that professors will not have to go begging cap in hand to outside players, including governments. It is not so far-fetched an idea. Not when one considers how the Pakistan Army manages to balance its various commercial ventures alongside their primary defence duty. If it can do it — then so, too, can we.
The writer is PhD and teaches at the University of Peshawar