An article - titled “Salvaging our higher education” (The Daily Star on 12 April 2018) written by Professor Emeritus Manzoor Ahmed of BRAC University - drew my attention and prompted me once again to write about the current state of higher education at private universities in Bangladesh. But today I would like to shed light on a less-talked-about issue which should be addressed seriously and immediately by the university authorities, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Education. I reckon the title says all that is hardly discussed by our policy makers and private university entrepreneurs.
First of all I would refer to Professor Manzoor Ahmed’s thought-provoking article where he talked about some challenges and opportunities identified by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC University and BRAC, who gave a keynote speech on “Assembly on Higher Education in Bangladesh” (sponsored by Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) based in Germany) on 11 March 2018 at Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Bhaban, University of Dhaka. According to him, the current ratio of teacher-student and the lack of qualified teachers are the two main reasons behind the low quality of higher education in our country. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2017, in the top 800 universities an average teacher-student ratio is 1:16.5 whereas in Bangladesh, the ratio in public universities is 1:26 and in private universities 1:22 which is far from achieving the international standard.Besides these two challenges mentioned above, Sir Abed addressed the following problems faced by the higher education institutions at present:
Lack of required skills of the graduates who are failing to meet the market demands
Lack of professional development of university teachers (Development is limited to obtaining an advanced degree in the respective field/ subject/discipline.) who are seldom trained to acquire pedagogical skills and engage students in an active learning process
Lowest investment in education (lowest budgetary allocations)
Lack of fund for worthwhile research
Mal-politics or inappropriate student politics leading to many kinds of crimes and political violence on campusesHowever, one important point is missing in his speech – though he made some very effective recommendations like turning the UGC into the Higher Education Commission and reviewing Private University Act 2010 – is the lack of job security for teachers at private universities in particular. This insecurity demoralises the teachers who want to build career in academia. At times, this insecurity leads to unprofessionalism which makes them consider the profession (teaching) as a mere job. Since private university teachers do not have any collective platform like teachers’ association (as public university teachers do have) they keep mum and can’t voice their concern against any injustice done to them.
It would be very relevant if we can recollect an untoward incident taken place on 30 July 2017 at BRAC University. A sudden termination of a teacher of Law triggered a chaotic environment, on its Dhaka campus, with hundreds of students – both present and alumni – taking to the streets, protesting the authority’s decision and demanding the immediate reinstatement of the teacher. The students continued their demonstration for 5 consecutive days, but unfortunately his colleagues except a few could not stand by him because they didn’t have any teachers’ platform/association. Later a 5-member probe committee made some recommendations to avert this kind of uncalled-for situation.
Recently some 10 teachers from different departments have lost their jobs at Southeast University. I have had talks with two of them who have been utterly surprised in shock and despair after getting the termination letter without assigning any reason. What I have known is that a few of them were sincere teachers, liked by their students but they were not given any chance of self-defence. This untoward incident happened because the university lacked a well-defined/circulated service rule.
We know that most of the private universities don’t have any statutes and service rules. Authorities of many universities look very reluctant to make a well-written/documented service rule which defines clearly how the teachers are recruited, promoted and dismissed. Some universities recruit fresh graduates for entry level positions like lecturers on a contractual basis for a year. Their job is subject to renewal every year. But questions remain - why do these universities offer a contractual job to a fresh graduate who is supposed to start his/her professional career with job security? Why do the authorities want to recruit bright students, having outstanding results, for teaching positions since they are not ready to offer the newly recruited teachers a secure career with an attractive compensation package? Don’t they need full-time (permanent) dedicated teachers at universities? Don’t they want to see their own permanent teachers succeed in their academic careers? Do they offer full packages/benefits – contributory PF, gratuity, health insurance, earned leave encashment and fund for research & scholarship, etc. – to the teachers who want to build a secure academic career? Aren’t they entitled to those benefits as the public university teachers are entitled to?
In many private universities full-time permanent teachers are also deprived of their career growth because authorities of these universities hire professors from public universities and renew their contracts annually. Those professors hold the top positions for an indefinite period, but the full-time in-house teachers opting for teaching as a career do not get the responsible positions. They do not even get any financial support for higher education or research, which is why many of them are lagging behind in their career. Moreover, the authorities of some universities are not interested about spending money on “faculty development” and “need-based research”. There are very few private universities where teachers’ voice is heard when it comes to making decisions. Sometimes they are treated as employees, not faculty members/academic staff.
Since the inception of the first private university, 26 long years have gone by. Currently the number of private universities stands at 99. But still many of these universities are not well-organised and well-structured in higher education sector. Though UGC puts emphasis on moving to permanent campus, they rarely talk about the necessity of framing a uniform “Service Rule” for teachers who are thought to be the pillar of an educational institution. Even some universities are reluctant to comply with the basic requirements suggested by Private University Act 2010 and put all-out efforts to make a true UNIVERSITY by considering teachers and students as two major stakeholders. If the universities fail to establish a congenial academic environment – by providing the teachers with full logistic supports, ensuring job security, offering them lucrative compensation packages including service benefits and encouraging them to serve in their respective institutions for long years – students will suffer in the long run, and our idea of enhancing quality in higher education will remain a far cry!
In conclusion I would like to share a list of characteristics of leading international universities (According to Professor Philip G. Altbach, an American author and researcher on higher education) below:
Excellence in research; top quality professors; favourable working conditions; job security and good salary and benefits; adequate facilities: adequate funding, including predictability year-to-year; academic freedom and an atmosphere of intellectual excitement; faculty self-governance.
Let’s just take a reality check on that!
The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of English Stamford University Bangladesh & General Secretary, Stamford University Teachers’ Association (SUTA). Email: [email protected]