The Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology has expressed strong concerns over the cut to the higher education sector funding and recommended for an increase in the budget as per the sector’s requirement. The Senate body held a meeting with Senator Rubina Khalid in the chair at the Higher Education Commission (HEC) Secretariat to discuss the internet connectivity problems in online learning being faced by students of remote areas.
Besides the committee members, the meeting was attended by Chairman HEC Tariq Banuri, Executive Director HEC Dr Fateh Marri, Rector National Academy of Higher Education Dr. Shaheen Sardar Ali, Vice Chancellors of different universities, and representatives of Ministry of Information Technology, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and Universal Service Fund (USF).
Speaking on the occasion, the Chairman HEC briefed the Senate committee on the steps taken to execute the Learning Management System (LMS) in the higher education institutions. Since the closure of universities due to COVID-19, HEC has been actively trying to minimise the disruption in educational activities. He elaborated: “Broadly, there have been two major issues. One, majority of faculty did not have online teaching background. Two, students faced internet connectivity issues.” He highlighted the efforts made to train the faculty members to improve the quality of their lectures and their way of virtual teaching. He also informed the Senate committee that HEC has been in contact with telecommunication companies through the Ministry of IT and PTA to ensure internet connectivity with subsidised internet packages for students. To this end, telecommunication companies are now offering student packages. “HEC is putting additional efforts to ensure facilitation of internet-deprived children.” He added that HEC has also proposed to the government to establish Data Centres in different areas so students may have access to information. He revealed that HEC has provided the universities with detailed policy guidelines on various issues, including conduct of entrance examinations, laboratory work, and all other essential academic activities amidst the situation created in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak.
The Vice Chancellors underlined the measures taken to promote e-learning and online classes through LMS. They appreciated the HEC’s role in making the transition easier. However, they also pointed out the hardships universities are confronted with, especially in terms of payment of salaries and meeting other expenses as a result of the recent cut to the HEC funding.
The PTA representative apprised the Senate body of its efforts to ensure internet connectivity as well as availability of required gadgets. The USF representative also informed the committee about different USF projects being executed in far-flung areas to make internet accessibility possible.
Expressing concerns over financial hardships faced by universities, Senator Khalid stressed the need for an immediate increase in the higher education sector’s funding in order to make education affordable and accessible to all. She vowed that the Senate body would take up the issue in the next Senate meeting. She said the higher education sector must have an allocation that is compatible with its requirement.
The Senate body observed that internet devices and technological gadgets are costly due to high liabilities and taxes on them. It recommended that PTA and Federal Board of Revenue must join hands and deliberate on ways to provide students with affordable internet devices and technological gadgets. It stressed the need for enabling schools and colleges to replicate the efforts made for online higher education so that e-learning could be promoted at all levels.