- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

QUETTA, Pakistan | Every day is a new struggle for the administrators of the largest public-sector university in Pakistan’s least-educated province.

In a bid to rein in the budget deficit, the Pakistani government drastically cut allocations to the Higher Education Commission, which funds public-sector universities, by 73 percent last year. The commission’s budget shrank from about $5 billion to $1.4 billion.

Among the hardest hit was the University of Baluchistan, which offers higher education at a low cost to about 6,000 students.

Despite an outward appearance of normality — crowds of students strolling in courtyards and the hustle and bustle emanating from the offices of lecturers — there are signs of the university’s slow death.

Paint is peeling on older buildings, weeds choke a playing field, the unfinished foundations of a new institute of management studies sit abandoned, and many professors haven’t been paid in months.

“If this university closes down, we are leaving our youngsters with no choice but to either pick up arms or head to the madrassas [Islamic schools],” said Yusuf Masih, a lecturer in the department of mass communications. Mr. Masih says he received his salary weeks late and has been told there is no money for him to attend teacher-development courses.

“The administration is trying to pinch pennies where it’s hurting us the most” he said. “The improvement of our faculty, who in turn will improve the quality of education they impart to students.”

U.S. economic aid could make a difference. But university Vice Chancellor Masoom Yasenzai said he had little hope that any of a promised $1.5 billion in U.S. aid per year would find its way to his school.

“This university has unfortunately not been high on the list of priorities for the Pakistani government,” Mr. Yasenzai said. “We are praying for help from all quarters, but don’t know if any of the American money will flow this way.”

“Other universities haven’t been so badly hit because many of them were able to generate a significant portion of their budget themselves through tuition hikes and other measures,” he added. “But here in the poorest of all provinces, we don’t dare to increase tuitions and can only generate a minor 9 percent of our revenue, compared to the University of Punjab, which is able to self-generate more than 70 percent of their revenue.”

Yet the need here is greater than elsewhere in Pakistan.

Baluchistan has the lowest literacy rate in a country where nearly half the population can’t read or write. Only 34 percent of the population is literate in Pakistan’s largest province, compared with a national average of 52 percent, according to the 2008 National Economic Survey.

The province is also home to the largest number of school buildings that are falling apart, has the least number of educational institutions, the lowest ranking in terms of gender parity and the smallest presence of private educational institutes in the country.

Among those who would be deprived of opportunity if the University of Baluchistan goes under is Mahan Abbas. The only woman in her family to go to a university, Miss Abbas, 20, has dreams of working in local government once she has finished a master’s degree in history. Any increase in her tuition of $20 per year would be a huge burden.

“Given these difficult times, such increases make it hard for students like me to continue their studies,” said Miss Abbas, whose brother helps pay part of her fees. “I had to start teaching to meet the expenses of books, tuition fees and hotel expenses.”

Miss Abbas, a slender woman with piercing black eyes, tugs at her head scarf to ensure no stray strands of hair have escaped. Her arms are weighed down by books, and she has the gait of a man - wide steps, arms spread out by her side. She hails from Turbat, a tribal area located in southwest Baluchistan and to the west of the Kech River.

“Abbas is the kind of student this university was built to support,” Mr. Masih said. “A young girl from a backward area eager to carve out a future serving the people of this province. If this university shuts down, Baluchistan will lose its best hope for the future - an educated youth.”

Mr. Yasenzai said education is the only effective tool to combat the growing trend toward extremism in Baluchistan. “If you don’t provide the youth with opportunities to improve themselves, then most of them will naturally move toward a path of self-destruction.”

Among Mr. Yasenzai’s fears is the collapse of a program that has sent 56 scholars abroad to pursue doctorate and other research degrees at some of the world’s finest institutions.

“These scholars are our greatest hope for the future,” he said. “They will come back and impart all they have learned to their students, and these students will in turn be inspired to improve themselves and obtain a better education. This circle of progress will help us get out of the circle of self-destruction we have fallen into.”

Recently, Mr. Yasenzai said he had to beg the education commission for funds to pay stipends for those going abroad. “I am fighting as hard as I can, but after a point, I just stand defeated,” he said. “There is nothing else I can do.”

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