Private University Act: Implementation is more challenging
ABDUL MANNAN seeks practical implementation of the Private University Act-2010.
In spite of the fact that the government promulgated the new Private University Act-2010 on July 18, 2010, there has been the occasional and unnecessary sabre-rattling by some quarters and a section of the media with its version of incomplete information or facts based on either half or no truth. Such actions create unnecessary confusion amongst the founders, students, guardians and faculty members of private universities.
The last such sabre-rattling was done on August 18, exactly one month after the promulgation of the Act. In a meeting at the Education Ministry, presided over by the Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid M.P., himself, and attended by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and a few representatives of the private universities, quoting the UGC Chairman, it was reported in a section of the local media that all private universities located in Dhanmnodi will have to be shifted soon or they will face closure.
However, in the official minutes of the meeting, nowhere had it been mentioned that any such decision was ever taken. It was only decided that the government could restrict the establishment of any private university in particular areas or places in the interests of the environment and security and public interest. This sounds more logical and rational. It would be more rational if this decision is made enforceable only to those universities that will be established after the new Act comes into force.
On the subject of Dhanmondi, many residents of this area (I am one of them) will perhaps express a sigh of relief if Dhanmondi regains its original residential character through removal of, first, all the shopping centres, shops, hospitals, diagnostic clinics from the area; and then the educational institutions, beginning with about two dozen schools and innumerable private coaching centres.
Many of these were established long before the private universities came. However, one will acknowledge that this is neither practical nor feasible. Wherever you have a hundred families living, you will need schools and other educational institutions, along with windows providing the basic utilities like health care. Dhanmondi area has about a dozen private universities, some on their own premises, of which at least three have custom made state of the art buildings with built-in high quality facilities (UIU, SUB and ULAB). The new Act makes it compulsory for a private university in Dhaka to have at least one acre of one-piece land (I still wonder why the measurement is not in square metre per student) to function, but in reality it will be practically impossible to have one acre for each of 47 odd universities operating in Dhaka.
The government should think of coming out to facilitate the private universities by creating a zone for setting up private universities like it often does for certain types of industries. The government has, in the meantime, created such zones for the IT and tannery industry and there are even proposals for creating such zones for the growing readymade garments industries. All these are very important steps for a healthy growth in these sectors, but nothing could be more helpful for national development than creating an education zone.
Before going further, let me share some insights into what is happening to our big neighbour, India, in the university education sector. According to the participants at a conference held last June in Washington DC, it was appreciated that India's so-called "demographic dividend" of a younger population compared to developed countries is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. A Wharton Business School feature on the issue says "the task of meeting global talent needs with an educated and trained workforce is too huge for any one nation to take on." Business leaders and government officials from US and India at the conference attempted to size up the challenge and find ways to deal with it.
The conference was organised by the US-India Business Council (USIBC). Recognising that 35 percent of the world's illiterate live in India (almost half of the world's illiterate are in South Asia of which 97 percent live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), the speakers at the conference drew a roadmap to get 30 percent of India's 240 million school children into higher education over the next decade, up from the current 12.4 percent. For this, India is planning to build new colleges and universities, both in the public and private sectors. India at present has 480 universities and 22,000 colleges. In the next 10 years, it will need 700 new universities and 35,000 new colleges. India has announced infrastructure build-outs worth more than US$ 1.5 trillion over the next five years. All this information comes from no less than Kapil Sibal, India's minister for human resource development, speaking as a key resource person at the conference.
As India has become the back office for many US multinationals and domestic corporations, US has extended its hand of collaboration to India to build up its higher education. Last fall, US government provided a US$ 300,000 grant to its Institute of International Education to create a two-year academic partnership programme between American universities and their counterparts in India and China.
Last October, US officials hosted 50 university leaders from India to discuss collaborations in education. While all these are taking place in our neighbour's house, how foolish is it of us to talk of closing down universities? No wonder, previously the Bangladeshi media carried ads of many third grade colleges and schools of other countries, excepting India. Now India has been added to the list. The more we shut down the more they open. As it has happened with our Adamjee Jute Mills, we closed one, India opened six new jute mills in the same year.
The new Private University Act-2010 took about seven years to formulate and though it is not totally foolproof, it is much more balanced than the one that was talked about. Any law will always have room for improvement. Implementing the law is much more challenging than framing it. Shooting the target with a gun needs competence rather than assembling the armament!
Amongst the 53 private universities operating in Bangladesh, the perpetrators are many. Some offer courses for which they are least qualified, having no qualified faculties, no labs and no libraries. Some have a student size three times larger than they can hold, turning classes into sweatshops. A particular "university" has three Vice-Chancellors, all claiming to be authentic! There is an allegation that at least one has outsourced a couple of its departments to a "conman" who runs it as his private grocery shop. One has taken such a grocery shop to the northern part of the country.
The class loads of teachers in quite a few private universities are extraordinarily high. I was amazed to learn that in some of these "universities", junior teachers are expected to teach five to six different courses, the pay is poor and the morale of faculty members is very low. They have to punch cards upon entering into the building and do not have any service rules, and the authorities forbid the use of university facilities for research. If the students do not turn up for a particular class, the teachers lose their payment. This is not how a university should be run.
The enacted law has enough ammo to clamp down on all these and other perpetrators. The UGC just needs to use them pragmatically and judiciously without threatening to close down any one of them, excepting the ones that have more than one person as a vice-chancellor or the ones that grossly violate the Act.
The oldest private university in the country is 18 years old and the youngest just five. All should not be weighed on the same scale for their compliances and normal activities like opening new departments or new admissions, and should not be affected on grounds such as not having a permanent campus. I still believe a permanent campus should not be one of the prime requisites for any seat of learning. Even the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and many such institutions of repute in Europe and US have some of their academic programmes run from rented premises.
The emphasis should be on whether learning and teaching is taking place properly. Even if one particular university is lacking on this count, the UGC should right away announce its name to the public so the guardians are careful while selecting institutions for their children's higher education. A few perpetrators should not be allowed to blemish the image of the entire sector.
Though late, one commendable decision taken in the last meeting was on setting up an independent Accreditation Council. However, this Council should do the job of accreditation (quality assurance) for all the universities together, both public and private. This will surely enhance competition for excellence in the higher education sector.
The history of private universities in this country is hardly a decade and a half old. Presently, about 47 percent of all university students go to private universities. With a 24 percent growth rate within the next five years, they are expected to overtake the public universities in student enrolment. In this short period of time, some have performed quite well, while others are trying their best to catch up. For a country like Bangladesh, it will not be possible to put all the responsibility of providing higher education entirely on the government. Higher education anywhere is expensive, and for any meaningful progress to be made, private initiative in this sector must be encouraged.
Bangladesh has been ranked 88th among the "best" 100 countries in the world recently by the international news magazine Newsweek. The ranking is based on such indicators as education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment. Two other countries in the region have done better than us, Sri Lanka (66th) and India (78th). This may not be a very big achievement for Bangladesh, but it is not mean either, considering the size and population of the country, its multifaceted problems, and the fact that it has been ruled by military and pseudo military rulers for half the period of its existence as a free nation. To improve its performance, we must collectively take care of our education, both in the public and private sectors; the other indicators will take care of themselves.
The world is shifting. We cannot live with archaic ideas and outdated thinking. With 160 million people living in Bangladesh, there is an opportunity for "demographic dividend." We just need to be a bit realistic and make appropriate roadmaps to bridge the talent gap by making our higher education system and its administration more useful. To begin with, we should stop unnecessary sabre-rattling and start implementing the Act with rationality and logic and without prejudice of any sort. Let the good and promising ones thrive and gross perpetrators be punished.
Abdul Mannan is former Vice-Chancellor, University of Chittagong and currently teaches at ULAB, Bangladesh.