Vol. 5 Num 733 Tue. June 20, 2006  

Private universities in rural Bangladesh

The University of South Pacific (USP) serves the Pacific Islands region in and through its 12 member countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribatis, Marshal Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Soloman Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tovalu and Vanuatu, and maintains a strong regional presence through USP centres located in all its member countries. USP has the provision of distance education, face to face teaching and summer schools. USP has now 18,000 enrolled students and 11,000 of them are full-time students. It has an exciting future, being at the forefront of Information Technologies with its Satellite Communications Networks and an extensive computer network. The Vice-Chancellor of the USP is capable of providing an appropriate mix of visionary flair, personal leadership and management skills to realise the goals of USP as the region's leading tertiary institution. This message was published in an international journal of higher education.

According to the university grants commission's report, the total number of affiliated universities in Bangladesh is 74. Among them, 21 are public and 53 private universities. Another two dozen universities are on queue for affiliation. Bangladesh is, therefore, going to be a country of 100 universities.

On the other hand, there are countries without any university. From the University of South Pacific, it is learnt that the Vice-Chancellor of the Fiji-based university is controlling the university campuses located in 12 countries which do not have universities. Modern technological equipment have enabled him to run 12 universities smoothly while sitting in one place.

Recently an African University (Makerere University in Uganda) invited me to an international conference to share my experience of establishing an ICT-based private university in rural Bangladesh. Participation in the event gave me an opportunity to learn that there are countries which can learn from our experiences because problems in all developing countries are almost the same in respect of higher education. One of the African participants informed me that there are only 130 universities in the whole of Africa and very few of them are private universities.

About 80 per cent of our private universities are based in the capital city, Dhaka, where 6 per cent of the total population of the country live and are lucky enough to enjoy the benefit of private universities. The remaining 94 per cent people have little or no idea about private universities. Only seven private universities have so far been established in two divisional towns but their campuses are in Dhaka. Comilla University is based in a district town but its campus is in Dhaka too.

Bogra-based Pundra University of Science and Technology (PUST) is the first and only private university in the whole of North Bengal where 45 million people live. It is the only district-based university in Bangladesh. The name "Pundra" has been drawn from its cultural heritage Pundra Bardhan or Pundra Nagar. There are the remains of a Buddhist University in the region, from 2000 years ago, and the area is known as Mahasthangar.

PUST started its initial activities in January 2001, achieved affiliation from the ministry of education in December 2002 and the vice-chancellor of the university was appointed on approval of the President of the People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Chancellor of the Universities in January 2003 for a term of 4 (four) years. The academic activities started in May 2003 in a village -- Thengamara -- with five ICT related subjects under two faculties. The main objective of the university is to allow the benefits of technology to reach the common people, particularly people of the northern region, through technology teaching and its applications.

In order to spread the benefit to the highest number of people at the minimum cost, the existing universities in the capital city can be relocated. They may be reshaped and redesigned to fulfil the purpose to the fullest extent. If the Dhaka-based universities are shifted to the district level towns, a greater number of people will be benefited. If the universities are properly organised and managed, they can earn foreign currencies as well as prestige for the country through enrolment of foreign students. Foreign currencies like dollar, pound, euro, yen etc can be earned in various ways, but I think the most prestigious way is through offering knowledge-based higher education and research. If we want to modify our existing universities into world class ones, the best global talents should be involved in teaching and sharing their knowledge. As a result, world class citizens will emerge.

Geographically, Bangladesh is a small country with the highest population density. However, a number of them are highly qualified, skilled and experienced in various disciplines. Many of the talented people are working abroad including in African countries. They are valuable resources for the country. The nation should boast of them. Many countries don't have this type of human resources. Bangladesh possesses valuable natural resources including unexplored minerals. Research opportunities in the country are immense. Universities are the best platforms for research on local, regional, national and international problems that depend on social, cultural, scientific, technical or techno-scientific activities.

Establishing a university in rural atmosphere is, of course, a tough, challenging and dignified job. Unlimited and unexpected problems of different shapes and sizes from different corners hit the project and project director who must have extreme tolerance capacity to tackle the situations. The problems can be minimised if they are anticipated. That's why, before embarking on any project, a preliminary survey or research is imperative.

For developing a region, the best way is to establish a university, because the most talented, skilled and knowledgeable persons are involved in a university. They can develop the area by sharing their knowledge with the local people. There are lots of examples how the universities have developed different regions of the world.

One of the missions of Pundra University is to bring the farmers to the university as research partners. The local farmers have lot to share with the university teachers and students. The farmers have traditional or local knowledge but the university people have modern knowledge. A blending of both will certainly be beneficial.

Pundra University of Science and Technology (PUST) can be the "Pathfinder or the Role Model" for others who would like to serve the country through establishing universities in rural areas. There is a lot to learn from the experience of PUST. The lessons would be of benefit not only to Bangladesh but to other developing countries as well.

Bangladesh can achieve one of the top positions in the global market through establishing an excellent environment for higher education in the country. For running world class universities, all sorts of commodities are available or can be made available in the country. We just need to create an environment by utilising our experiences gained from home, like Thengamara, and abroad. Bangladesh could thus be one of the best places for higher education and be well known to the global community as "country of universities."

Prof Lutfor Rahman is Vice-Chancellor, Pundra University of Science and Technology, Bogra.