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  • Pakistan government relents in research funding row

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[ISLAMABAD] The Pakistani government, in bitter dispute with its higher education establishment, has agreed to restore university funds that were originally promised in this year's budget but later withdrawn and re-allocated to flood-relief.

It is hoped the move will end an impasse between the government and the country's Higher Education Commission (HEC), although the government also says it is halting new research scholarships.

The total sum for higher education in Pakistan's 2010–2011 budget was 15.76 billion rupees (US$184 million). But the government has released less than half what the universities say they need — around US$58 million — for the initial quarter. In addition, the HEC has yet to receive US$23 million left over from the previous year's budget.

The floods — which arrived in July, one month after the budget was presented, and have affected over 21 million people in the country according to the United Nations — demand a diversion of some of the promised funds, said the government.

"The Government has to prioritise between completing [building the] incomplete universities and taking care of people displaced by floods," Pakistan's finance minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh told The Express Tribune newspaper. "The country is passing a difficult phase and the HEC has to share the burden."

The comments followed a stormy meeting on 17 September at which government and HEC representatives failed to make any headway on the funding issue. Furious vice chancellors of 72 publicly funded universities threatened mass resignations and lock-ins. Their threat was followed by widespread protests across campuses.

The government agreed to provide the promised funds at a meeting of the country's planning commission yesterday (23 September).

The money will be used to fund ongoing research projects or those nearing completion, but no new research scholarships .

The government has also agreed to pay the academic staff a 50 per cent salary hike that was promised in the budget.

Earlier this month Sheikh advised the universities to generate some of the funds themselves. He said they could explore the options of public-private partnership and leasing spare university land as a way out of the cash crisis.
The HEC already has a unit on university-industry liaison but critics say it has done little.

"If the government is serious [about science] they can find many alternatives to cutting the science and education budget and spare higher education from cuts," Ashfaq Hassan Khan, director-general of the business school at the National University of Sciences & Technology, Islamabad, told SciDev.Net.

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