The rising cost of university education: 'The fee structure should not deny equal opportunities to poor students'

Muhammad Faisal


Read In Urdu


The rising cost of university education: 'The fee structure should not deny equal opportunities to poor students'

Muhammad Faisal


Read In Urdu

Husnain Jameel Faridi was in the final year of an MPhil degree in political science in 2019. Hailing from Pakpattan, a remote district in eastern Punjab, he was enrolled at the Punjab University in Lahore and is the first person in his family to study at a university.

His father was then doing a small business in Pakpattan’s grain market but he had to shut down his shop because of the losses he was incurring. Just about to complete his studies, Husnain, therefore, was not able to pay his tuition fee for two consecutive semesters (amounting to 60,000 rupees). “I was finding it hard to pay my university bills as I had no financial resources,” he tells Sujag.

The Punjab University, however, announced at that time that those students whose fee was pending could not sit in examinations. So, Husnain had to forgo his examination. The university management also refused to accept his thesis and told him that his degree would be issued only after he had paid the pending fee.

That money in the meanwhile kept increasing and soon reached 200,000 rupees, including his unpaid hostel expenses. It was impossible for him to arrange such a huge amount through his own resources so he borrowed from his friends. With this loan, he paid his university dues and applied to the management that his degree be released but he was informed that his degree had been cancelled because he could not apply for it in time.

To make matters worse for Husnain, the management banned his entry in the university because of his participation in the students’ rights movement.

He says he is not the only one facing these problems. “The university management does the same with every student who is unable to pay his fee in time. It is a routine affair.”

According to him, there are hundreds of students in the Punjab University alone who can no longer afford to pay their fee because it has been increased massively in recent times. “The rise in tuition fee is making many students like myself to leave universities without completing their education.”

Ali Turab, a resident of Faisalabad, is facing similar problems while studying law at the Government College University, Faisalabad. His family wanted him to get higher education so that he could find a good job and make life better for himself as well as for his parents and siblings. His father owns a small business and cannot afford to bear his son’s university expenses so Turab has to work as a private tutor.

A few months ago when all the educational institutions were closed down due to corona virus pandemic, his university shifted all classes online but did not give students any relief in tuition fee. When this led to protest by students, the university reduced their ‘miscellaneous expenses’ – usually related to the usage of such facilities as library and transport – by 30 per cent. This meant Ali Turab had to pay 27,040 rupees instead of 28,000 rupees for a semester – which, as is obvious, offered him almost no relief.

He says tuition fee in government universities – which include both the Punjab University and the Government College University, Faisalabad -- is usually much higher than what it should be given the low quality of government-provided education. “It seems the universities want nothing but earn more and more money,” Turab says.

The number of government sector universities has increased more than five times to 133. This increase has been achieved mainly by upgrading many colleges to universities.

Rising tuition fee is a problem for Ahmad Azeem too. He belongs to Rawalpindi and is doing his MPhil in psychology at the University of Peshawar. He has paid 54,800 rupees to the university as his first semester fee and will have to pay 219,000 for his entire degree. He says his cousin also studied for the same degree at the same university a decade ago but he paid only 40,000 rupees for his whole course. In other words, the university has increased its fee more than five times in just ten years.

At some universities, this increase has been quite abrupt. For example, in August this year, Lahore’s Home Economics University (former Home Economics College) announced that it will charge 150,000 rupees for a masters degree and 42,000 rupees for a BS Honor degree. Before the hike, this fee stood at 40,000 rupees and 5,000 rupees respectively.

The university management says its expenditure has increased after it got the university status but it claims to be “still offering cheaper education” as compare to other government universities.

The students, on the other hand, say the standard of education and the facilities at the university are the same as they were in the past and there is no significant change even in its learning environment. This means there is no solid reason to increase the fee, they argue.

Money makes the mare go

There were only 25 government universities in Pakistan in 1995. The number of private institutions of higher learning was only eight at that time. Now the number of government sector universities has increased more than five times to 133. This increase has been achieved mainly by upgrading many colleges to universities. (The increase in the number of higher education institutions in the private sector has been even more rapid --having reached 83 now.)

There are several reasons for this phenomenon.

According to the 2017 census, Pakistan has 27 million more inhabitants as compare to 1998 and 63 per cent of its total population now consists of young people in the age group of 15 to 33 years. All this young population aspires to have a better life than what the generations of its parents and grandparents had. Education is seen as a major means to realize this aspiration.

Consequently, the number of primary and secondary school students in Pakistan has increased many times over the last two decades. This increase, in turn, has resulted in a rapid rise in the number of students seeking higher education.

The other two factors that have contributed to this trend are: a) personal incomes in Pakistan improved in 2000s compared to what they were before and people in the lower and middle strata of society had more money to spare for the education of their children; b) information technology made access to knowledge easy even in smaller towns and villages and, thus, increased both the demand and the supply for education there.

According to the educational statistics (2016-17) issued by federal Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, universities in Pakistan have 1,463,297 students enrolled in different programs. If this number is juxtaposed to the population of youngsters in the age group of 17 and 23 years which, according to the US Census Bureau stood at 30,300,000 in the same year -- 54.4 per cent out of it being boys and 45.6 per cent being girls – one finds that 20.7 per cent of this youth is studying in higher education institutions. This comes down to one in every five youngsters living in Pakistan.

This means that a large number of people can now better afford higher education for their children. It could also mean that poor and middle-class families are pinching their bellies to provide higher education to their children.

In order to support these poor and middle-class families, the government should facilitate students coming from them. On the contrary, increase in the number of government sector universities has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in their fee – which has risen from a few thousand rupees to tens of thousands of rupees in recent times. This rise is making it very difficult for students from the poor and the lower middle classes to get higher education.

Where has all the money gone?

The provision of higher education by the government sector depends solely on grants the universities get from the federal government. These grants are routed to universities through the Higher Education Commission (HEC) on an annual basis.

Abdul Ghafoor, an assistant director at HEC, explains to Sujag that all the decisions regarding tuition fee are made by universities on their own. As far as HEC is concerned, he says, it informs the federal government about the estimated financial requirements of each government university and then the federal government issues funds according to its available financial resources.

Abdul Ghafoor also says the financial and administrative supervision of universities has become a provincial responsibility after the 18th constitutional amendment. “HEC is now responsible only for examining the standard of education which it does by ranking universities in accordance with their teaching quality.”

This ranking, however, is important because, as he says, “the size of financial grant that HEC approves for each university depends on it.”
Dr Hasan Ameer Shah, who was the vice chancellor of the Government College University, Lahore, before he joined his current post as the dean of natural sciences faculty at the FC College University, Lahore, explains to Sujag that these grants are not enough to cover all the financial needs of universities. They spend a major part of these grants on paying the salaries of their staff and on maintaining their basic infrastructures – such as buildings, furniture and transport, he says. “After these expenditures have been made, they do not have sufficient funds to spend on students so they increase tuition fee.” Still, he adds, most of them are running in losses.

The national budget data favors his argument. For the current financial year, the federal government has allocated only 0.09 per cent of its total budget outlay for higher education – which is the lowest percentage in the last two decades. Consequently, when HEC demanded 104 billion rupees to give to the universities in grants, the government paid it only 77 billion rupees. This is, in fact, 20 billion rupees less than what HEC got in the last financial year.

Dr Faisal Bari is a renowned researcher on education and is also a senior teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He remarks that if the purpose of providing higher education is to give equal opportunities to all then it is necessary to determine the price of education in such a way that rich and poor students have equal access to the institutions of higher learning. This equal access, according to him, cannot be possible unless the government subsidizes higher education -- whether by giving scholarships to students or by keeping the tuition fee low.

But he warns that lowering the price of education can also bring down its quality because universities will have to either reduce the number of teachers or to make a cut on other educational facilities if their income from tuition fee goes down. “Everywhere in the world, university education comes at a price because the provision of higher education requires it a lot of money. So, if a university wants to provide cost effective higher education then it needs money from sources other than the tuition fee,” he says and then asks: Who will provide this money?

“If a university gets this money only from student then higher education will be available only to the rich.”

Ending the positive discrimination

On paper, government universities are supposed to benefit students belonging to the middle and working classes. They are also regarded as the sole source of providing higher education to students coming from remote and economically backward areas.
In reality, they are doing the opposite of that.

Arsalan Hameed’s story illustrates that. He belongs to Dalbandin, a small town in western Balochistan. His family does not have enough financial sources to provide him higher education but, benefiting from a special government program, he has been studying political science at the Bahauddin Zakria University, Multan, free of all costs – besides getting an additional scholarship of 5000 rupees to meet his daily expenses.

Now when he is in the final year of his studies, the university has taken back all the special facilities given to him and hundreds of other Baloch students enrolled there. Several other universities in Punjab have done the same -- cutting back on the concessions and support they were providing to Baloch students.

Some of these students started a protest in front of the Bahauddin Zakria University’s main entrance on September 1st, 2020. Their protest went on for 40 days but the university management did not listen to their demands. They then decided to do a long march from Multan to Islamabad via Lahore. Its 35 participants reached Lahore on foot in the third week of October. Here they met Governor Punjab Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar who announced that he would try his best to revive all the special facilities for them.

No concrete action has been taken afterwards though the students have called off their march.

Is higher education a basic right?

Dr Bari believes every society needs educated men and women -- not only because education can help them get good jobs but also because it is essential to make a society a better place to live, to promote democracy and to increase political awareness among people.

“Of course, we need to ensure that students in each discipline are enrolled in accordance with our social and economic needs. For example, if the number of students studying philosophy exceeds the number of available jobs related to this subject then it makes sense to restrict admissions in this discipline.”

Other than that, he says, there should be no restriction on anyone getting higher education and the government should make the required amount of money available so that everyone can do that.

Dr Shah has a similar opinion – and urges the government to increase its spending on higher education. “Although universities are providing scholarships to students but these are not enough,” he says, “because only 10 to 11 per cent of students are benefiting from these”. So, he says, the government should increase its financial support for universities. “Only then the fee burden on students can be decreased.”

Renowned educationist Dr A H Nayyer also insists that everybody should have access to higher education regardless of their social status. According to him, the governments in European countries provide maximum financial support to higher education institutions so that the maximum number of students could have access to them. In the United States, he wrote in a recent newspaper article, not only the government but corporate sector and charity organizations also help the education sector. We can adopt the same model in Pakistan to reduce the fee burden on students both in the public and private sector, he added.

Note: Zahid Ali and Urooj Aorangzaib contributed to this report from Lahore.

This report was first published by Lok Sujag on 29 Oct 2020, on its old website.

Published on 10 Jun 2022

How do you like this report?


Muhammad Faisal is a journalist, researcher and translator. He has extensive work experience in leading newspapers and TV channels.