Sunday, 23 January, 2022; 7:08 pm
History of modern civilisation is incomplete without the contribution of the universities. At present, universities are considered the key to socio-economic and overall national development. The rise of middle class and birth of Bangladesh as a nation state is solely influenced and directed by its oldest university — University of Dhaka. In independent Bangladesh, universities contributed in various social and political movements. However, the real significance of universities is in creating knowledge, disseminate it and create space for debates and free speech.
According to UNESCO and Guinness World Book of Records, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin (859) in Morocco is the oldest and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world which was also one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world. The most prominent in Muslim world was Al Azhar University (970) in Egypt which was the hub of Islamic law, logic, grammar, rhetoric, cosmology etc. The first university in modern Europe was University of Bologna established in 1088 in present-day Italy which was mainly a law school with autonomous power to provide certificates. In the subsequent decades, University of Paris (1150) in France, University of Oxford (1167) and University of Cambridge (1209) in England created a wave of knowledge practice in Europe. The subsequent centuries observed a mushrooming growth of universities in the western world. The dawn of Western civilisation is shaped by its universities.
Initially, the universities were responsible to train people to understand religion, religious law and law of the land. With the passage of time, the universities transformed to respond to the need and demand of the society and state. Historically, universities are being sponsored by the state since state assumed the responsibility to look after its citizen. In recent times, the philosophy and structure of higher education has changed rapidly with the advent of neo-liberalism in the 1980s. In the neo-liberal economic set up, the private sectors are given priority over public sector in every sphere of society, including education. Under this framework, the curriculum, and methodology have gone through massive transformation to maintain efficiency and offer market based courses which are now key features of universities in 21st century. Quality education has become costly, and with the deficiency of public fund in the developing countries, good research universities are now centralised in different parts of the developed world.
In Bangladesh, after exactly 71 years of the establishment of its first university by British government, the first private university was approved in 1992 — the time the country started to adopt neo-liberal policy prescriptions from international organisations. Since then, private universities have grown in several phases in different regimes. But the number grew in the last couple of years. According to UGC, there are 95 private universities already approved, out of which 84 are functioning and 11 are yet to start their activities. Currently, about 463,767 students are studying in these universities having 40 per cent female students.
This sector earns at least 463 billion taka per year (considering an average tuition fee of Tk one hundred thousand per student per year). This huge market is running almost without any accountability. The government takes a share of this revenue through taxation and other means. Massive VAT charges were successfully resisted by students. This is the contradiction of the sector. According to the ACT, private university is a non-profit organisation from where government cannot earn any tax. In the Private University Act-2010, it is clearly mentioned that if any private university makes profit, all the money has to be reinvested. But in many universities, the trustee members are earning millions per year as their honouriam. Therefore, government is legitimating earning profit and such illegal practices.
The anomalies start from the licensing of private universities. Getting a licence of a private university has become a neo-elitist phenomenon. Most of the authorities were never in the management of higher education institutions or in academia. The logic is clear to them, they have money and they have all the right to invest in higher education where they can earn money, power and status. This has resulted in the lack of professionalism, compliance to rules, academic standard and vision. Though teachers are the most important part of a university, most of the universities pay meagre salary which compel them to compromise with quality. Most of the universities have no performance evaluation system by students.
It is the interest of the private universities to increase the number of students since this is the only way by which they can increase their revenue. A large number of HSC graduates is a blessing for them. In this regard, two factors from two sectors are contributing to sustain the demand for private universities.
First, the flooding of CGPAs in the SSC and HSC which increase the potential aspirants of universities. Second: the recent decision of the Dhaka University of not allowing students to appear in admission test for the second time has led the students to look for other universities, mainly private universities. It was observed that, a huge number of students used to sit for admission test for the second time and the success ratio was also high. This decision has made the private universities happy since they are now expecting more quality students. Nonetheless, this is a nightmare for many lower middle class students for whom getting admitted in the DU is a dream come true.
Therefore, it is clear that the government policies are directly supporting the private universities through pushing up the enrolment. At the same time, government is playing as a sucking machine to earn revenue from the private universities through different taxes and other means. This process is neither helping to ensure quality education at private universities nor making the students skilled to take the challenges of twenty first century. Moreover, this is contributing in increasing inequality by letting middle and lower middle class families to spend more in paying tuition fees which rarely can give them enough returns since quality of the degrees are poor.
Getting out of this situation is not easy. The problem is multidimensional and the intervention has to address many areas. The basic problem is in the supply chain. It is not possible to improve this situation without ensuring quality primary and higher secondary education. Those are the stepping stones for students. If the students can learn the basics at that level, they can decide about their future.
Student may be admitted in the school of business, engineering, economics, literature, language and so on but disregarding the discipline, they should be provided with basic skills of critical thinking, communication, analytical ability, digital competency, global awareness and some basic courses to build their ethical and moral standard as a good human being. In this regard, the private universities should be given the authority to design and decide over any course relevant to the students.
Moreover, the private universities can cooperate with each other to build some common resources in the areas where the universities are clustered. That can be extended to make a platform where the students and teachers from different universities can interact with each other.
It is not the task of private sector to uphold the standard of higher education. Since the government allowed it, there must be a public-private partnership for proper functioning of this sector. The government has to change its perception regarding this sector since this is not like other businesses It is an investment in human capital and participation in nation building process. A successful partnership will help universities to upgrade the standard and ease the infrastructure as well as ensure transparency and make authority accountable.
Note: First Appeared in The Financial Express. http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2017/01/21/59800/Private-universities-need-more-support-for-better-outcome/print
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