Although education except the university education in this part of the globe had a chequered history of being imparted by private individuals called philanthropists, the university education was entirely a product of an endeavour of the government. The geographical area now constituting Bangladesh had its first western like university namely University of Dhaka which was founded out of political compulsion or splendid imperial compensation in 1921. Subsequently some five universities were set up by the government in 1953, 1961, 1962, 1966 and 1970 respectively. The first public university in liberated Bangladesh was set up in 1980 and by 1992 some four public universities were brought into being by the government to cope up with the sudden increase in the number of higher secondary passed students and an urge generated by neo-liberal mode of economic development. All these universities along with 28 more founded by 1992 were funded almost entirely by the tax payers’ money.
The first private university was set up in 1992 immediately after the enactment of Private Universities Act, 1992 by a group of philanthropists. In the Act, the general requirements for establishing universities were mandated to be 10,000 square feet of physical space with specific number of computers, if department of computer science was cherished. The other requirements were at least two faculties having at least two departments in each faculty, each department having at least four teachers along with a Vice Chancellor and Treasurer and certain other officials, syndicate or Regency council to govern. There was a requirement of shifting from temporary to the permanent campus on 5 acres of land anywhere in the country after 5 years of operation. The Chancellor of the university - the president of the Republic was the top most functionary of each of the universities and was empowered to appoint the Vice Chancellor & Treasurer, as well as to chair the convocation ceremony of such universities as like as that of public universities. There was provision for Academic Council but no provision for senate, election system for appointing deans or members of the syndicate or rotation of the chairman of the department. However, the act did not provide for appointment of Pro Vice Chancellor.
The International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT) could have been the first private university in the country had they the ability and intention of putting up the mandatory fixed deposit money of one crore. The North South did it and got the charter as the first private university. The IUBAT started its operation without receiving the final approval of the government by second half of 1991 initiated by Dr. Alimullah Miyan, Professor Abdul Mannan Choudhury or six others in 1985. The private universities at the beginning were largely or essentially coaching centric which gradually drifted towards teaching centric.
The Act of 1992 brought in existence only 15 universities by people like academics and enlightened businessmen and civil servants apparently with no profit motive but the elites and the media started unmasking the unscrupulous behaviour of some and emphasised the need for shifting the temporary campus in order to upgrade the coaching centric universities to at least teaching centric universities. The government in power also realised that ‘not for profit’ ventures have turned into money making ventures due to market imperfection, and therefore imposed tax through SRO.
The tax was almost at the commercial rate (40%) which was brought to 15 p.c. due to the pressure built by the existing philanthropists having parleys with parliament and council of ministers. The amended Act of 1998 along with tax, Vat etc. was a clear impediment to the promotion of universities by the philanthropists, without profit motive. The 1998 modification started bringing results only after 2000, when a new government came in power and some potential investors visualised it as a favourable environment. A huge number of people even by putting up 5 crore fixed deposit and complying with other rigid requirements created universities. The last university created under the Act of 1998 was Asa University, when the total number of second generation universities stood at 39. Efforts were initiated to modify this Act to inject accountability and transparency and enhance quality. The then Chairman Professor Asaduzzaman started amassing favourable opinion for modification to bring sanctity in perceived unscrupulous activities. He could make some significant changes including uniform grading system for all universities and strategic plan but could not change the Act. Some five universities were thrown out and some others were warned to improve the elements having impacts on quality. There was some fowl play too in choosing the universities. The amendment to the already amended Act could not be brought into the parliament till the assumption of power by Awami League. The efforts of C.M. Shafi Sami, Dr. Farash Uddin, Professor Dr. Abdul Mannan Choudhury and Dr. Alimullah Miyan from outside and Mirza Azam and his friends from inside the parliament moderated this attempt. And instead of modification, a new Act comes in existence, namely the Private Universities Act 2010.
The new Act brought many changes in the process of promotion, management, governance and quality enhancement etc. The significant changes revolve around changed definitions, the need for additional physical infrastructure, the appointment of top functionaries like Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor and Treasurer with clear definition of their qualification, experience and roles, creation of the Board of Trustees (BOT) & its registration, making account keeping & auditing more stringent and framing more rules and regulations to institute accountability, transparency and enhancing quality of education and mandatory provision to shift temporary campus to permanent campus on at least 1 acre of land in Dhaka and other city corporations and two acres of land beyond and to deposit 1 crore to 5 crore depending on areas, and establishment of temporary campus with at least three faculties each having two departments on physical area of 25,000 square feet at the beginning with the compulsion of shifting the permanent campus after 7 years of receiving the first permission. The Act also makes it imperative to receive a permanent approval on fulfilling of at least nine conditions including free education to certain social groups including the wards of freedom fighters, adhering to the principles of state of Bangladesh and the setting up an Accreditation Council for ensuring quality. In essence, the Act, if could have been accompanied by Accreditation Council at the very beginning of promulgation, could bring very drastic changes especially in the management, governance and quality enhancement or had there been simultaneous changes in the power and resources of the UGC instead of waiting for Accreditation Council; the many evils could by now be eliminated.
In the absence of empowering UGC and or creating Accreditation Council, the older ills and evils made their ways and myths and malicious gossips about the private universities in general, superseded the facts about the private universities. Many social and political forces started highlighting the traces of unscrupulous behaviours in all generations of universities steered by handful of people through offering unapproved courses at unapproved campuses, with insufficient and inefficient teachers especially with part time teachers or straight way selling certificates.
Many of the universities which we may call 2nd generation university have seen tough and uneven competition. Somehow they have survived but the third generation which started coming on existence by 2012 are facing problem of elimination because of stiff competition let loose by huge waivers and attractions. Of late, they have realised that in the academic arena, too low a price and creating supply does not necessarily create demand. The low priced education without quality does not attract enough students and enough revenue to survive.
At present almost 88% of the universities are located in Dhaka city. The rest are located in the periphery or in the heart of moffasal towns. These universities as alternative systems of education drew aspiring people. The incentive to set up universities outside Dhaka city was provided by government policy of setting up at least one university at each district headquarter, the lowering of fixed deposit from 5 crore to 3 crore or 1 crore and need of one acre to two acres of land for construction of permanent campus beyond the urban areas, started flourishing. Besides the universities in rural areas, some specialised universities have come into existence too.
The first generation and so to say the second and third generation of universities were set up by people largely blessed and connected with politics of the then political parties in power. Despite ban on setting up of university in Dhaka city, some people got permission to set up in Dhaka. Some such people are said to be mostly nonchalant to UGC which has only advisory functions almost with no power or authority to mould the conduct and change the behaviour of any universities. The experience provided UGC to raise voice to rename UGC as Higher Education Commission (HEC) with power commensurate with responsibilities to compel the sponsors to comply legal provisions of 2010 Act.
Many people started clamouring for regulatory body like the Accreditation Council for arresting degeneration. The much needed and talked about Accreditation Council has, of late, come into existence and it may relieve UGC or whatever we call it from the onerous responsibility and unpleasant task of regulating behaviour through classical conditioning. Now with the creation of Accreditation Council, we anticipate clash of interest or domain, if the domain is not clearly spelled out. Although I was fervent supporter of HEC and empowering it even with judicial power, now I feel that if Accreditation Council is allowed to operate by competent people without fear or favour, it may institute accountability and transparency and ensure quality education through accreditation of programmes and institutions. In that case UGC or HEC can at best facilitate or advise to overcome hurdles of quality enhancement and regulate only in limited cases.
The allegation about private universities concerning certain malpractices, mischievous behaviour, large scale use of part-time and inexperienced teaching staff, inadequate infrastructural facilities, small amount of fund direction to research, lack of extracurricular activities creating half-baked graduates and of selling certificates by some are not totally unfounded. However, more researches will be needed to promote them from the level of sheer hypotheses to established truth.
Other facts around private universities may be stated as follows:
Certainly, there was the felt need for establishing private universities in order to get rid of campus politics and campus rowdism and consequent session jam; and response to the need for utilitarian education. The utilitarian concept was harboured to mean imparting market driven education or education for immediate use for all stake holders.
The stage was ready, the dominant stakeholders i.e. students and guardians were highly receptive. They pursued a relevant cost strategy, high excess and relevance. They probably had other objectives which may be termed as satisfying the social or egoistic needs as well as a taste for self-actualisation and money, not to pocket but to invest the surplus to create infrastructural facilities. Some of them were unfortunately in the money making games.
Private University hardly had any hartal or untoward incidents over the last two decades. Political unrest could not make any dent, because students did not indulge in destructive politics, rather they don’t get time for even constructive politics in view of the trimester system & credit system. That does not mean they don’t participate in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. They often go out to provide succour to flood or storm affected people. Except a few, they had been proved to be equally patriotic as others. They promote civic and cultural activities.
The universities spend considerable sum for advertisement even in the souvenir of public universities. Private universities also provide financial support to events hosted by autonomous or government departments. The universities pay AIT, VAT and income tax which is likely to exceed billions of taka apart from employing thirty thousand teachers, employees on a full or part time basis.
They have contributed to supplement the income of public university teachers, enable many to buy apartment and private cars. Quite a number of teachers are absorbed in the sector after their retirements from public universities. Even the retired civil servants enjoy cheerful and rich life because of private universities. The universities attract more foreign students than the number attracted by public universities signifying a better system of education on full cost. That too means the national exchequer is inflated by increased inflow and reduced outflow which had not previously been the case.
These universities have been able to stop the potential brain drain and bring back brain already gone. They have contributed towards minimising the cultural shocks by checking exodus to hostile culture. The private universities started with a handful of students, now stand first in terms of number of student intake. The funding of higher education by private money has enabled the government to pay attention to public universities, nationalisation and MPO system or establish more school, more college and pay for school feeding or funding of different schemes of schools.
They have pushed the public universities to be more selective in devising new systems of delivery, discipline and creating state of art infrastructural facilities and laboratories by seeking fund even from their alumni.
Since the private universities need not have to create panel of vice chancellors though election, the election of dean and rotation of heads, there is hardly any scope for teachers’ politics. Appointment, promotion or terminations are done strictly on the basis of created objectives. However, these universities could not compel students to be quality oriented, innovative and entrepreneuring. The major cause for delayed shifting of campus are non-availability of desired land or difficulty in funding construction and the general apathy of existence students to move.
The private universities have also provided excess to students of unthinkable social classes, ensured academic discipline, contributed to poverty elimination, promoted ICT, minimised digital divides and supplemented efforts of governments towards general digitalisation.
Thus, the private universities have successively made valuable contributions and emerged as alternative mode of delivery of tertiary education although they bear the legacies of myth, mysteries and malicious gossips. Therefore, they should be protected and patronised adequately.
The private universities of Act, 2010 may not be amended without examining the results expected to be brought about by the newly found Accreditation Council. However, the Accreditation Council must be provided with congenial environment and resources to act without fear and favour and exercise operant conditioning, instead of classical conditioning.
The writer is an eminent academic, freedom fighter and Vice Chancellor, World University of Bangladesh.