Vol. 4 Num 226 Tue. January 13, 2004  

'Private universities springing up like tea stalls'

Higher education is at an impasse in Bangladesh. The old model of centralised control of university education which promised (but not always delivered) reasonably high quality, massively subsidised education through a very small number of state-run institutions to a very narrow spectrum of students, has given way to a brave new world of a burgeoning array of private universities (50+ at last count) of variable quality which charge substantial fees for the privilege of attending. In this unfettered world of educational capitalism, private universities in Bangladesh have become like tea stalls, springing up at every corner -- but still mostly in Dhaka. They have evoked a fire-storm of criticism with their detractors deploring their alleged rampant consumerism, narrow spectrum of course offerings, and low quality of instruction. Their critics further castigate them for duping an unsuspecting, desperate public and paradoxically also for providing access to only a very small financial elite. On the other hand, their supporters point to the service provided by private universities in accommodating a burgeoning demand in higher education which cannot be satisfied by the ossified, financially strapped, chaotic public university system. They are optimistic about the public being able to decide on quality, and believe that eventually only the higher quality institutions will survive.

Let us see if we can examine the merits of the points that have been raised by both sides to gain some clarity into this complex and nuanced topic. At the outset it is important to point out that with fifty plus institutions in the private sector and about twenty odd institutions in the public sector, there is likely to be great heterogeneity in resources/quality and one needs to be cautious about broad generalisations.

Private universities in Bangladesh offer at least in principle some distinct advantages over their public peers. These include: (i) increased choice and or access to those students who either are unable (due to increased competition) or unwilling (due to the characteristics of the institutions), to enter the public system; (ii) timely completion of degrees unhindered by session jams as in the public system; (iii) a safe and secure environment free of student violence -- a particularly attractive feature to parents; (iv) a semester system of education where one is evaluated continuously and multiple times in circumscribed courses, rather than in one anxiety provoking end of course final exam which can make or break one's career; (v) coursework in English, competence in which is increasingly recognised as the passport to jobs in the global economy; (vi) linkages or the promise of such to universities in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand which then provide an avenue for students to pursue higher studies and possibly future employment in the global market place; (vii) the promise of potentially higher quality faculty who are paid substantially more than their public peers and presumably hired on merit rather than through nepotism; (viii) better physical facilities (classrooms, laboratories, libraries, computer centres, cafeterias etc) due to the higher resource mobilisation from tuition fees; and (ix) the promise of expanded research and scholarly activities funded partially through higher tuition fees.

It is important to re-iterate that currently these theoretical advantages are only partially and variably translated into reality in the private university sector. Public universities on the other hand have also made some inroads into addressing a number of their comparative disadvantages. For instance, there has been overall a reduction in session jams; some institutions have changed over to the semester system; more and more courses are being offered in English; more attention is being placed on merit based faculty hiring -- although anecdotally nepotism remains rampant in the hiring process; and new programmes of instruction compatible with global market place demands (e.g. computer science, business administration at the bachelor's and master's levels) are being offered at some of these institutions.

The major structural disadvantages of private universities vis--vis their public peers are and remain (i) high financial costs of attendance which limit access to the financially affluent; and (ii) limited curricular offerings catering to market demands.

Although costs at Bangladeshi private universities are typically orders of magnitude higher than in public universities (roughly one lakh taka / year vs. a few hundred taka / year for fees), they are substantially lower than universities abroad. Moreover by allowing students to study at home and not have to go abroad, they provide attractive alternatives to parents who are loath to sending their children (especially daughters) abroad on their own. While most of these institutions do provide some financial aid to needy meritorious students, from the above financial figures, it is clear that private universities provide alternatives for the most part to the fairly affluent middle / upper class in Bangladesh.

With respect to the curriculum in private universities, the repertoire of programmes is relatively monotonous, with most institutions offering the holy trinity of BBA, MBA and Computer Science. The major rationale for this is the general perception (whether true or not) that parents are unlikely to make substantial financial investments on the part of their children for programmes of study that are deemed not marketable. Promoters of private fee based institutions correctly point out that these institutions are just responding to market demands. If tastes were to shift and there was a demand for say "basket weaving" private universities would be only too happy to offer that as a course of study. There is some evidence about the truth of this position, as recently more private universities have started to offer programmes in English, pharmacy, architecture, engineering presumably responding to market forces. For public universities, massive state subsidies allow for a much larger repertoire of course offerings not driven by market demands (e.g. Sanskrit, theoretical physics etc)

In addition to the above mentioned structural disadvantages (i.e. high costs and limited curricula), an oft mentioned but difficult to evaluate criticism of private universities is the poor quality of students and faculty, relative to their public peers.

There are a number of factors which may help explain this difference in student quality, if it exists. High tuition fees and limited curricular offerings clearly limit the potential pool of meritorious students that private universities can draw on. Secondly the relatively short history of private universities works against them in so far as students tend to be risk averse and choose institutions that have been established for a long time.

With regard to Public vs. Private faculty quality, again this is a complex issue to evaluate, as no hard data exists or is at least collated. With regard to faculty qualifications, the flagship private universities (Independent University, Bangladesh; North South University; BRAC University, East-West University, etc) in all likelihood can hold their own vis--vis Dhaka University, and other flagship public universities in the subjects that both groups offer. For the rest, the only common denominator is that faculty quality is very variable and anecdotally quite poor in both the public and the private sector. As mentioned earlier however, at least theoretically the private universities have more flexibility in improving faculty quality as they have access to greater financial resources and are not burdened by overly bureaucratic rigidities in faculty hiring and promotion.

In summary, the lack of hard empirical data makes it difficult to evaluate the over all relative situation of public versus private institutions. The fact that large numbers of private universities have opened up suggests that there is a demand for wider access to tertiary education and that they can provide an alternative to the public sector. Whether this alternative is a credible and sustainable option or not will depend on how private universities position themselves in the future.

Professor Omar Rahman has taught for many years at Harvard University and is currently professor of demography at Independent University, Bangladesh.

Next: Private universities: Some suggestions for sustenance.