Inside the federal education budget

The writer (she / her) has a PhD in Education.

Budget allocations should be read as reflections of the true priority accorded to sectors and programs. Insufficient budgetary allocations to programs incur delays, cost overruns and poor / delayed social impact.

My purpose is not to dissect the recently announced federal education budget 2022-23 but to use it as a case to understand how education budgets are made every year, and what their allocations consistently tell us about our priorities, which change very little from one year or one government to the next. Successive governments have been unable to prioritize and allocate resources efficiently. Instead of picking high-impact priorities and fully funding them so at least some are completed, and services become available on-budget and on-time so we can move on to the next priority, we sprinkle a pittance across many projects which then drag on , incurring cost and time overruns.

The magnitude of education spending, best assessed as a percent of GDP, has been on a steady decline for the last decade. It hit a new bottom of 1.77 per cent in 2020-21, far below the 4.7 per cent global average and the 5 per cent recommended for Pakistan. Prevailing economic conditions have forced the government to adopt a tough degree of austerity. Unfortunately, in the context of budgets, austerity and development are diametrically opposed – when you do one, you cannot do the other. Austerity measures always hit development projects first. For that reason, hoping for development spending this year is an impractical expectation.

This year’s entire federal education budget was allocated Rs135 billion. As always, the lion’s share of Rs109 billion goes to the HEC to support (public) universities. The remaining Rs26 billion is allocated to the MoFEPT of which Rs19 billion is allocated to meet recurrent expenditures against a demand of Es26 billion (a shortfall of Rs7 billion). According to a former MoFEPT official, its impact will be curtailing some employee benefits. New schools built last year will not become functional because there will not be enough money to pay staff salaries. Regular school maintenance and repair will suffer.

The throw-forward liabilities (expenses that cannot be made in the current year and are budgeted in subsequent years) of 25 on-going development programs is approximately Rs21.7 billion while the total allocation for 2022-23 is approximately Rs6 billion. When considering the MoFEPT, it is important to remember that it includes not just the 420+ schools and colleges under federal jurisdiction and all ancillary functions but also covers more than 20 affiliated organizations and departments such as vocational training under the NAVTTC, the National College of Arts, and other entities. Of the PSDP allocation of Rs6 billion, half is allocated to NAVTTC and half to all other development activities under the MoFEPT and affiliated entities.

A case in point is the scheme titled ‘Provision of Basic Educational (Missing) Facilities in Educational Institutions of ICT under the FDE,’ approved in June 2021 at a cost of Rs6.8 billion. By June 2022 the scheme incurred expenses of only Rs0.00079 billion to hire a consultant while Rs6.7 billion, almost the entire cost, is throw-forward. This scheme has been allocated Rs0.38 billion in next year’s budget. At this pace this scheme will likely not be completed for at least a decade unless a pot of money is secured from elsewhere. This means some schools in Islamabad will continue to lack basic facilities like boundary walls, electricity, water, toilet facilities, laboratories, additional classrooms, etc.

When I asked a ministry official what an allocation of Rs0.38 billion will achieve against such a huge cost, he said that this allocation, reduced from an earlier proposed allocation of over Rs0.6 billion, is insufficient to cover the mobilization cost of the consulting firm which means the project cannot be initiated, leading to inefficiency and delay.

For another example, consider that seven of 25 ongoing schemes relate to construction of model schools for boys and girls in ICT. The establishment of three of these schools was approved in May 2018 and another four in 2019. This means these schools have been under construction for the past 3-4 years. Based on throw-forward and allocations this year, the schools will take another 1.5 to 3 years to complete, assuming similar allocations in subsequent years. By the time these schools are completed, they will not only be late, but the inevitable inflation will cause cost overruns. This is in addition to the obvious social cost to communities of not having a school for years. When these school buildings will finally be ready, the government will begin the struggle of staffing and making them operational which will become a challenge for the recurring budget.

Consider these figures and remind yourself that up until last month we were blowing Rs75 billion on fuel subsidies every fortnight.

Four new development schemes are proposed in FY2022-23. Interestingly, the two most expensive schemes are only amorphous concepts at this stage and were proposed by the sitting government. One of these, the ‘Establishment of State of the Art Teachers Training Institute’ (approved cost: Rs1 billion) has been allocated only one-tenth (Rs0.1 billion) of the approved cost. At this pace, it will take 10 years to complete it.

More importantly, what do we do with a state-of-the-art teacher training institute in ICT which does not even have a teacher training policy / program in place? Unlike provinces that have a teacher training regime in place starting from onboarding to in-service training, the ICT does not have any! A state-of-the-art teacher training institute in the absence of a well thought out teacher development regime is nothing but more infrastructure and hardware. A new building will be constructed, or an existing structure will be enhanced (most likely at a very slow pace), computer labs and equipment will be purchased and by the time there is a program in place it will already be outdated.

Despite public statements, a glaring gap in the budget is the lack of any allocation for projects addressing the issue of out-of-school children (OOSC). No money has been allocated either to the existing under-funded more than 200 non-formal schools in Islamabad and no commitment has been made to cater to the 35-50 thousand OOSC the MoFEPT believes to currently be out of school in ICT.

On the higher education side, the HEC demanded Rs104 billion for recurrent expenses. This was first met with a proposed allocation of Rs30 billion which, after public outcry, was revised up to last year’s figure of Rs65 billion. The HEC’s development budget is Rs44 billion, almost equal to last year’s allocation of Rs42 billion (although actual release / spending was Rs24 billion).

The throw-forward for 137 on-going PSDP schemes alone is Rs225 billion, which has been met with an allocation of approximately Rs38.7 billion. At least one campus construction scheme was approved as early as 2007, 15 years ago. Many construction schemes have been ongoing since 2013-14. As in the school education sector, development projects in the higher education sector drag on.

The PTI government set up a Prime Minister Inspection Commission that compiled a report on the performance of the HEC. It especially looked at 23 PSDP projects approved by the executive committee of the National Economic Council spanning the 2000-2020 period based on the HEC’s own data. These projects, mostly related to infrastructure or student scholarships, were either implemented by universities or the HEC. The findings were disappointing: out of 23 projects analyzed, only two were completed on time and on budget. Four projects saw cost overruns between 10 and 50 percent, two projects had cost overruns between 50 and 100 percent and one cost overruns by more than 100 percent. Total cost overruns amounted to Rs3.5 billion and in most cases the scope of projects had to be reduced.

Eleven projects overran time by 5-10 years! Other irregularities also existed. Four ongoing projects were analyzed yielding the same observation: “lack of implementation capacity, skills and professionalism: especially the areas pertaining to utilization of financial, human, and physical resources…”

This is the tale of most government projects. While we do want more resources allocated to education, the incapacity of organizations – from school to higher education – to spend allocated amounts efficiently and professionally makes one wonder if greater allocations alone can resolve our education crisis.

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