COVID-19 and funding for research


Prof Dr M Suleman Tahir

LOGICALLY, the term university means ‘the house of knowledge’. No, doubt universities are institutions to promote higher education. But higher education is not the only responsibility. The core role of universities is to produce new knowledge. In this modern world majority of economies are knowledge-based. In such circumstances, the role of universities becomes more significant. The main element for the growth of a knowledge-based economy is the commodification of knowledge and it could not be actualized without an active role of universities. Research has a central role in a sustainable university model. The world’s leading universities depend on research and commercialization to achieve a suitable sustainability level. Research is a process to create new knowledge and commercialization is a process for the commodification of knowledge. One of the outcome of such commodification always is in the form of revenue. A careful study of models of universities in developed nation-states shows that it is difficult to achieve a suitable sustainability level without research, development, and commercialization.
In Pakistan, the higher education sector is under stress for two decades because of a lack of funds and small research grants from the government. Pakistan’s economic model is neither perfect capitalistic nor socialistic. It has a mixed economic system. In such a setup, it is always challenging for the government to allocate suitable funds to all sectors. This situation has a deep impact on the higher education system as well as on research and development. No doubt, the circumstances are not favourable for universities. Simply, a sustainability model means a university that contributes to building a sustainable society through education, research, collaboration with the society and campus development. It aims to practically and multilaterally support the well-being of society by “expanding education and research that are rooted in social challenges as policies of the entire university” and “implementation of campus development that harmonizes with surrounding areas”.
In Pakistan, there are three sources of revenue for universities; the first one is government funding, second is tuition fee from students and third is research grants. But the share of revenue under the umbrella of research grants is very little. It is possible to actualize a sustainable university model by optimizing the use of available resources. Due to economic constraints, the government can’t increase funding. On the other hand, the paying capacity of students is limited and varies from area to area. So, it would not be a good decision to increase the tuition fee. Some universities had increased tuition fee and now trying to facilitate the needy students by using different options like scholarships, endowment funds and donation pools.
Universities have to focus on research and development to generate revenue. So optimization of resources, development of infrastructure to facilitate research activities and commodification of knowledge mean commercialization are the only possible ways to sort out the sustainability-related problems. KFUEIT is a new university in extreme South Punjab and is in a severe financial crisis for the last two years. From November 2019 and onward, management adopted practices to optimize the use of available resources as well as kept its focus on research. The outcome of such measures is favourable and now KFUEIT is in the transition phase towards sustainability. A majority of faculty members perceive universities as easy job centres and they engage themselves only in teaching instead of research and development. But universities required out of the box efforts from faculty members to boost up the research-related activities because research is now another lifeline for universities. It is the need of time to change such perception. Internal politics is another reason which is a big hindrance to sustainable growth. It is common that in every university there are different lobbies or groups which are always in search of opportunities to achieve their objectives or personal benefits. Their efforts are not aligned with the line of action of the university. It is necessary to rectify such elements.
A well-maintained teacher-to-staff ratio would help universities to improve sustainability. As Higher Education Commission (HEC) recommends the teacher-to-staff ratio in the range of 1:1.5 maximum to get the good funding opportunity from different funding bodies including HEC. The outcomes of such a suitable teacher-to-staff ratio would be as the maximum output from research and development, and reduced expenditure on non-productive staff. On the other hand, the initiative of the government to implement merit policy is appreciatable. Recently, the government has appointed Vice-Chancellors in various government universities in following a strict merit policy. The competent authorities are committed to implementing strict merit policy in the selection of teaching faculty and staff because without such implementation universities would become just job centres for inexperienced and incompetent teachers. It would cause a hindrance to achieve sustainability, to promote quality education and research. Universities need competent, intelligent, hardworking faculty with strong teaching and research experience and it is not possible to actualize without following the standard selection criteria. Such measures would not only raise the quality of education as well as revolutionize the whole perspective to higher education in the country.
No doubt, in the case of universities, for the actualization of the sustainability model, research is as important as government support. For such a model, universities require extraordinary research-oriented faculty, good research labs, libraries an efficient process for the commodification of knowledge, commercialization and supporting infrastructure. Otherwise, the only option to achieve the sustainability model would be the revision of fee structure. For many students, it would become difficult to continue their university education. So, it is the responsibility of university management, faculty and staff to put their efforts in the right direction. Optimizing the over expenses can help reduce the fee burden on the students. With all the above, it is necessary to follow suitable austerity measures to reduce unnecessary expenses. It is in accordance with the teachings of our beloved Prophet (PBUH). The life of Prophet (PBUH) is a role model for every person. Our Prophet (PBUH) always prefers a simple life over a luxurious life. So, to leave luxury and adopt simplicity is the path of the Prophet (PBUH). Moreover, our country is also suffering from COVID-19 pandemic. The economy of the country is under high stress. All educational and research-related activities are on almost halt.
It is a challenging situation for all of us. Now, as a member of this nation, we must generate savings and provide the fund to the government. A single simple step can save the resources which could be used in another way to cope with the pandemic situation. So, it is the need of the hour to save from available resources and spend for a safe future. No doubt in this hard time all universities are participating according to their capacity. KFUEIT also established a fund to provide ration to six hundred families. All faculty and staff of university donated a part of their salaries in government corona funds. University prepared sanitizers in its labs and distributed these bottles in all government offices and public. No doubt participation is directly dependent on the available resources. Anyhow more sustainable institutions could serve this nation in a better way. Finally, let me say that universities are for quality education and research with PhD faculty and scholars not to give the jobs to everyone without merit because quality education, technical professions and moral character building are main components that are required to build in youth for strong, innovative and leading nation.
—The writer is associated with Khwaja Fareed University of Engineering and Information Technology, Rahim Yar Khan.