Private universities: New laws and the real picture
Kazi Anis Ahmed sets the record straight
The government is about to pass a new law to fix the problems plaguing the private university sector. It might well be gazetted by the time this piece reaches the reader. The media, and under its influence the public, have accepted the need for a new law. But before we reflexively endorse either the passing of a new law or its proposed contents, we should make certain that the following questions are addressed: Do the problems of this sector stem mainly from legal weaknesses or structural ones such as funding, talent etc.? Also, to the extent the laws governing it were an issue, was the content of the law the problem, or the lack of its application?
If these questions were debated with an open mind by all stakeholders, we might have found that there was no need for a wholesale new law, that only smart revisions and mechanisms to ensure vigorous compliance were needed. In this country, it has often been not the laws themselves but the failure of successive governments to enforce them which has led to lapses. Now the government is proposing a vastly more complex law, but without a convincing change of structure or staffing in the relevant agencies. In fact, the new law might actually hinder the migration to standards and healthy growth, because too many of its clauses have been drafted with the wrong information or priority.
Before we embark on an assessment of the new law, a brief correction of perspective on private universities is in order. Over the past few years, repeated claims in the media as to the abysmal condition of private universities have convinced most people of that truth. The media was, of course, not wrong, because too many of these universities failed to maintain basic standards and committed egregious offenses, such as selling of certificates.
In all this criticism, however, a few key facts about the sector have been completely overlooked. The very best of the private universities -- certainly the top four -- offer an education as good as any public university in this country, and indeed, in certain respects, they offer unique advantages (in areas of computing, co-curriculars, career training, etc.). Another dozen or so private universities offer an education as good as most tertiary options in this country, though perhaps not on par with the very best in either the public or the private domain. This minority of private universities enrolls a majority of the students in this sector and, despite all the criticism, most students in this sector are actually quite well served.
Three tiers and student distribution
The diversity of this sector is an important, and overlooked, enough point to spend a bit of time on. By now, it is possible to classify the private universities into three broad categories. These are, of course, not categories determined by an official rating; rather I rely on a mixture of statistical and anecdotal data. While it is an imperfect method, I hope to demonstrate its utility in the course of this piece.
Tier 1: Universities which provide an education as good as other options in this country, if not better in certain respects. This is about four-five reputed universities. Tier 2: The dozen or so universities which may lag behind the leaders, but maintain basic curricular and delivery standards. Tier 3: The remaining universities, which seem to possess little ability or willingness to maintain even basic standards.
Often the media portray private university students as if they were all being swindled out of a quality education by the tide of substandard institutions. But, in fact, while Tier 3 institutions are numerically superior, we shall see that the vast majority of students do not attend them.
Percentage of Students
By these categories, 65% of the students in this sector are enrolled in the mid-to-higher quality universities. While even Tier 1 and 2 universities could stand to improve continually, the media reports the lapses of Tier 3 as if they describe the whole sector. The government has taken up this cry by drafting new laws to fix these widely reported breaches. But with so many students being served by the upper levels of private university education, why then are we promulgating laws as if all institutions were in the bottom tier and most students were suffering under them?
My main questions are: Should laws governing this sector be composed mainly with the weakest performers or worst offenders in this sector in mind? Are these laws appropriate for the better institutions? Also, was the real problem with existing laws was that they were faulty, or that past governments did not properly enforce the existing rules? Will government officers with the same resources as before be able to enforce more complex laws?
There is no denying that smart laws to ensure maintenance of standards will be useful. But without the capacity and the will to enforce such laws, what happens is that the better players become obligated to observe often cumbersome new requirements, but the worst offenders go on blithely ignoring these imperatives. Thus, not only is the quality of the targets not improved, but the dynamism of the best is curtailed.
Let us look at the mind set behind the new law, which is complex and problematic. While the ostensible goal of the law is to ensure better standards for private universities, its most over-riding immediate effect will be the severe curbing of the authority of the governors. There is no denying that the governors of too many private universities have proved themselves embarrassingly unfit for the role. But to design a law that curbs the rightful governors of all authority -- good and bad -- is deeply misguided.
This kind of law-making is driven by an attitude that is person-focused, not process-focused. By that I mean that even if all the private universities were presided over by perfectly decent governors, most of them would still be in deep trouble due to structural reasons. Structural problems begin with the fact that there are "too many" private universities. In reality, the number of students seeking higher education shows we need them all. The historic problem, whose legacy we now bear, is that the government granted too many permissions in a concentrated period, without full review of the country-wide resources and legal structures.
As a country, we have neither the capital nor the intellectual talent to support all the universities. So what has happened is that the institutions in this sector have found themselves engaged in a zero-sum game.
Those with better resources, networks, and strategies will secure the few talents in the market, and the others are doomed to suffer. The past governments should have done a better job of screening the fiscal and intellectual fitness of the founders. They should have also allowed private universities to emerge in a more gradual manner, giving every institution a better chance of securing the necessary capital and talents.
There are also a number of problems with some aspects of the new laws. We might consider a few of the most serious ones:
While this government has been responsive, and reduced the five acre permanent campus requirement to two acres, it still makes no sense to have a fixed rule where one university may stabilise at 3,000 students while another may enroll as many as 30,000. Rather, what is needed is a ratio of square footage per student.
Moreover, the insistence that universities own their own land and building within five short years of founding is misguided. In an economy and culture like ours, it takes longer to build up the necessary funds, and there are vastly better uses for the limited funds in the early years, such as building up laboratories, libraries, etc. In fact, it does not matter for the first ten or fifteen years if facilities are provided in rented buildings, as long as they are of superior quality and adequate dimensions.
Another law stipulates that no more than twenty percent of the faculties of a private university can be part-timers. In the short-term this may be the most damaging, and hardest to enforce, of all the new laws. The sheer need and logic of the sector calls for a more liberal attitude towards part-timers. Most of the great American universities, which are also ranked as the best in the world, engage part-timers, including graduate students, to teach one-third to one-half of the classes!
Having so many part-timers, or adjuncts as they are called, has not reduced the quality there, nor does it do so here. The media's claim that part-timers, in and of themselves, somehow compromise quality actually has no basis in truth. Rather, this fear seems to stem from a desire to restrain public university faculties from excessive moonlighting. But to deprive private universities of necessary talent in order to address an unrelated problem is deeply unfair.
One of the chief problems with this restriction on part-timers is that it assumes that it is possible for a department to have all conceivable expertise permanently on its staff. In our public universities, where government subsidy allows maintaining a bloated staff, such a law makes sense. But, for dynamic universities, which necessarily take a multi-disciplinary approach to the teaching of any subject, it is ludicrous to insist that all talent be internal. No reputable university in the world runs on such a premise, yet that is what the new law asks us to do.
Let us turn our attention now to curriculum. We have already seen that there is a static view of knowledge which is guiding the debate and, therefore, the lawmaking, which is limiting a necessary dynamism needed in the sector.
This static mindset has led to the insistence that the tiniest change in a curriculum or syllabus be approved by UGC. No other clause can probably better expose the fallacy of trying to impose upon such diverse players without more qualifications. This law was created due to certain Tier 3 private universities introducing programs that were not credible. While that is a deplorable practice, I argue that this law is not the best way to solve the problem. In the end, it will not stop a fraudulent university from submitting an acceptable syllabi, and then not delivering on it. Rather, it will stop the better ones from exercising their creativity and flexibility.
The UGC seems convinced that the private universities are not able to create knowledge themselves -- that their only task should be to receive syllabi and texts developed elsewhere, and simply deliver them. Surely, the government does not truly believe this, or else it would not have given permission to any private university, which is not a coaching centre but an institution of higher learning. Having given such permissions, and given the achievement of the better players in the field, the government needs to respect their rights and abilities, and then draft appropriate laws.
Currently, when a syllabus is submitted to the UGC, it compares the syllabus to a benchmark selected by it, and/or sends it to an expert. Why do they assume that their selected benchmark, or expert, contains all the wisdom concerning that subject? They should check only the basic structural aspects of a syllabus (number of years, terms, credits, etc.), and allow any expert to face the authors if there is any question of content. Otherwise, this law does nothing but force all private universities to have identical syllabi, which goes against the grain of what it means to be an intellectual institution.
To give one final example, the government has defined to exhausting detail the size and composition of all councils and committees. This was done mainly to ensure that governors do not exercise excessive control over the universities. In the best of places, such interference is not needed to ensure balanced decision-making. Again, the worst offenders will find ways around any laws. So, why impose obligations on the compliant universities that are sure to burden them with unnecessary bureaucracy and inevitable inefficiency?
Our society's lack of vision, and the inability of past governments to enforce necessary laws, are as responsible for the weaknesses of private universities as the omissions of certain governing boards. Unfortunately, the new laws seem designed only to punish renegade boards, while the rest of society contributes nothing but criticism.
In this context, a combination of forums might be useful. The government should form a committee with members from both the Ministry of Education and the UGC. This committee should sit with a joint representation of governors and vice-chancellors. Only such a tri-partite forum, willing to slog out its differences in an unrushed manner, could come out with policies that will address all the complexities of this sector.
Of course, all the onus cannot be on the government -- just as it is not on the governors. If the government is more willing to talk and listen, the governors need to come up with certain minimum governing protocols and standards that they promise to live by. The association of the governors needs to be willing to police offenders in its ranks to gain credibility with the government, the media, and the public.
The government must realise that laws are not truly the main problem of this sector. Rather, other root causes -- lack of funds, talents, etc. -- lead many to bend or break the laws and resort to desperate measures. The past governments have done nothing to help the private universities solve such root causes. This government can do the following things if it wants to really help this sector:
Funding: The government does not need to give the private universities any cash grants, though that is quite common in many countries. But the government should at least stop trying to take cash away from them. While insisting that private universities be non-profit, the government taxes them as well! Nowhere in the civilised world are non-profits taxed. Make the laws easier, in coordination with other relevant ministries or offices (NBR, etc.), for private universities to raise and receive charitable donations from home and abroad.
Talent shortage: The government should seriously ramp up the abilities of the public universities to grant Ph.D.'s, and allow the better private universities to do the same. In the meantime, it should make it very easy to hire foreign faculties. Scholarships for study abroad to private university faculties should be made available as well.
Councils: Do not dictate too far the composition of councils and committees; let each institution find its balance.
Land: Remove even the two acre requirement in favour of a reasonable ratio, and, require no one to own land or building before fifteen years. Additionally, government should help private universities secure land at government rates for permanent campuses.
Taxes: Repeal any or all taxes on this sector; but initiate vigorous audits to ensure governors cannot siphon out funds for personal use.
Part-Timers: Remove the limit on part-timers, or set it at a more feasible level (no lower than 40%).
Let us not pass draconian new laws that do not address or redress any of the real problems faced by this sector. Let us take initiatives to alleviate its structural issues. Rather than scape-goating, let a tri-partite forum come together for problem-solving. The sector is too important and too full of promise to be sacrificed to a momentary or partisan hysteria. The government must reach out to all the real stakeholders who can ultimately determine the sector's fate.
Dr. K. Anis Ahmed is Director, Academic Affairs, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv