Column by Mahfuz Anam: Private Universities - A grand initiative going sour
There is a peculiar trend in Bangladesh. When someone starts something innovative, then hundreds of copycats spoil it. Following the restoration of democracy in 1991, one or two quality independent newspapers were launched. Now there are more than 500 daily newspapers in Dhaka city alone. Someone started private hospitals. Now there are more than 5,000 private hospitals and clinics and over 10,000 private diagnostic centres, according to the DGHS. There are many more that are unregulated and unmonitored.
Same is the case with private universities. After the pioneer and visionary former bureaucrat and diplomat Muslehuddin Ahmad started the first private university in Bangladesh—North South University (NSU)—in 1992, there are now, according to the University Grants Commission (UGC), 108 private universities. Of them, 52 are in Dhaka (unconfirmed reports say 22 have addresses in Dhanmondi, Lalmatia, and their vicinity), with 33 currently operating without vice-chancellors and 76 without pro-VCs or a treasurer. How do they survive with such blatant violation of the law? Because of political support. There are 114 new applications for universities and many have political backers.
Given our population and the dearth of public resources to provide higher education, private investment in this crucial sector is an acute need. Not the "money-maker" investment, but education-promoters' investment. And that is where we have miserably failed.
A cursory study of the Board of Trustees (BoT) members of some 15 prominent private universities has revealed an overwhelming presence of businessmen as sponsors, who have come with an aggressive profit motive into the higher education sector, changing the very ethos of private universities and forcing many of them to lower their standards to get more students—generating "certificate holders," not scholars or competent human resources.
The above, however, is not the whole story. There are several good private universities. They have done a creditable job in providing high quality education and producing a qualified workforce that Bangladesh needs. Science, engineering and IT education have gradually improved in these institutions with more and more qualified faculty members being trained through scholarships and training workshops. Faculty members from prestigious universities abroad are showing interest in sharing their expertise and knowledge with some of our private universities, some of whom are also reaching out to international bodies for quality enhancement.
So the case is of some very bad apples spoiling the good ones, or should we say, many bad apples spoiling the few who have managed to emerge with some reputation—NSU being a case in point.
Time has come for some serious introspection and reforms. The challenge is how to reinforce all the positive gains of the private university experience and weed out the negatives and move on.
We need to start with the Private University Act that defines who can be their sponsors. No qualifications or criteria are set here. A special fund of Tk 5 crore for Dhaka and Chattogram and Tk 3 crore for other metropolitan areas, 25,000 sq-ft of owned or rented space, and a Board of Trustees (BoT) consisting of 9-21 members are all one needs to apply for a private university. Nothing is required about the educational qualifications, professional records, reputation of a BoT member or at least some signs of his/her interest in education. Anyone with some money to spare could sponsor a university, and that's what mostly happened. Some joined to promote education, but many others to promote themselves—association with a university set the right tone.
Things dramatically changed when the private universities became very successful and turned into huge money-making machines. The best of our private universities charge Tk 6,500 per credit, and a student generally needs 120 credits for his or her degree, making for a total of Tk 7.8 lakh for an undergraduate degree. The middle-order ones charge Tk 4,000, amounting to Tk 4.8 lakh. With an average student body of 5,000 (some have 25,000 or more), and adding to it all sorts of fees—including every semester registration fee—it is a huge annual intake, whose bank interest itself makes for a significant earning.
A section of BoT members in some universities, not all, having signed up for a non-profit university, and seeing the money that was flowing in, felt that they deserved a share of it. Since they couldn't take dividends, they started extracting perks like expensive cars, annual foreign trips with family, high fees for attending BoT board meetings—as much as Tk 1 lakh—and fees for attending meetings of committees that numbered from 12 to 25 in some instances. In a case of one university, that we could verify, a BoT member could walk into any committee meeting, regardless of being its member or not, and then charge attendance fees for any number of meetings held that day. Some BoT members annually collected around Tk 1.5 crore with taxes on those fees that the university was forced to pay. Many trustees got personal offices in the university premises and started interfering in hiring faculty members, student admissions and admin staff, and got personally involved in micromanaging the university, largely disempowering the VC.
The future of 328,000 students in private universities is at stake here, with 97,500 women with 42 percent in engineering and technology, 24 percent in business administration, 11 percent in humanities, 6.71 percent in science, six percent in law, three percent in social sciences, and the rest being less than one percent, according to the UGC.
The challenge of the moment is not to underestimate the contribution that the private universities have made, and erode in any way their autonomy, but to devise ways to improve their internal governance with appropriate checks and balances on the power of the BoT and the administration led by the VC. It was the absence of this balance—with the BoT thinking, claiming and acting as the "supreme authority"—that has led to the present governance and financial problems.
As for NSU, without prejudice to the accused BoT members, the rest of the board should reconstitute itself, elect a new chair (temporarily, if necessary) and institute a thorough investigation headed by an independent body comprising eminent scholars and administrators, assisted by a reputed auditing firm. The BoT should do it before the government steps in.
For the longer term, an experiment, an initiative by NSU founder Muslehuddin Ahmad titled Education Quality Assurance Foundation (EQAF), could be looked into. The EQAF suggested a process of self-regulation and peer monitoring with the help of internationally recognised bodies that ensure globally recognised quality standards of universities all over the world.
We need such a measure as an integral part of the graduating process to the status of a developing country. We also need it to supply that crucial qualified human resources that the future growth of Bangladesh requires.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.