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Cover Story

Standardising Private Universities

There is little doubt that private universities in the country have been playing a significant role by creating opportunities for many students to continue higher education. Students either having school certificates under international systems or those who not get a chance in the public universities get admitted at these private universities. Before the advent of private universities, students often had to leave the country to study abroad in keeping with the demands of the job market, which has a preference for business administration and other technical subjects such as computer science. Public universities do not have enough seats for these subjects and going to a foreign university, spending a huge amount of money, seemed to be the only answer. Thus the establishment of the private universities in the country was looked upon as a blessing, saving valuable foreign currency as well as providing higher education to thousands of young people, much to the delight of their families. But have these universities delivered what they promised?

Ershad Kamol

Capitalising on the demand of the current job market, private universities were introduced in the early 1990s under the Private University Act 1992. Within a decade, 54 private universities in the country have been established offering basically subjects like business administration, computer science, engineering and others.

Despite the fact that they took permission as a 'not for profit' institutions on a temporary basis, from the wholesale market for essentials at Jatrabari to the top floor of a kebab shop in Dhanmondi, private universities can be found anywhere and making good profits like any other commercial enterprise. Only a handful of these universities have attained a reputation for providing quality education, but most of these institutions are running as 'certificate factories' churning out certificates for a certain amount of money. The well-reputed universities, meanwhile, charge very high tuition fees in the context of a poor country like Bangladesh.

Capitalising on the demand of the current job market, private universities in the country have been established offering mainly subjects such as business administration, computer science, engineering and others.

The Ministry of Education, University Grants Commission, educationists and even the representatives of some private universities are concerned about the existing scenario of the private universities of the country. After 17 years of getting the license to operate the private universities on a temporary basis, none of the private universities have applied for a permanent permission. Most of these universities do not fulfil the requirements of getting permission under the existing rules. Rather violating them most of these universities are involved in unethical activities, which ultimately destroy the concept of the private university.

Advocates of well-reputed private universities that are seen as brand names in the private education market, argue that the graduates of these institutes are proficient in English, which give them an edge in the global market. The educationists, however, evaluate the scenario a little differently. Arguing basic language skills cannot be the criterion to assess the standard of a university; according to linguists, students acquire basic language skill at school. It is quite natural that students, after completing 12 years schooling in English medium schools will have a good foundation in English. The global standards for evaluating a university are human resources, research, publication, graduate training, library and other academic facilities and other activities. Do our private universities meet these demands?

"For its 'sexy appeal' the private universities in Bangladesh have attained popularity amongst the teenagers," comments educationist and economist Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, "Since they take tuition fees in instalments, even the higher middle class people are now a market of these universities. Thus private universities have become a contentious topic. However, only four or five of these institutions offer the minimum standards required of such institutions. As a result, the dreams of many of the students break down in the job market. But, it's also to be noted that students can complete courses in time at these universities without the intervention of national and teacher politics, which is a very positive sign."

It's a common allegations against most of the private universities is that they sell certificates like other commodities. Many of their activities lack transparency. Violating the existing rule, many of these private universities run outer campuses, provide distance learning, even PhD can be bought claiming to be affiliated with in name only foreign institutes. In most of the cases, without taking any admission test they enrol students even in technical disciplines such as engineering and pharmacy, without providing the required facilities.

It's alleged that substandard private universities usually sell MBA certificates with which professionals can get promotions. A student who enrols in such an institute can get a certificate without even attending classes or taking classes during the weekend. Moreover, in the name of distance learning many substandard universities are selling certificates violating the Private University Act 1992, which was amended in 1998. What's more, one can get a PhD, even a post doctorate degree from a private university 'with foreign affiliation' without doing the required exclusive research. All one needs is the cash to pay for the certificate.

A few months ago students of many private universities vandalised their campuses demanding the legal documents of running outer campuses and for not getting the sufficient laboratory facilities, which these universities had pledged before admission.

Financial accounts of many of the private universities are also not transparent. After the four-year graduation many of these private universities ask the students to produce a money receipt of the first or second semester during taking the graduation certificate. Newspaper reports say that students, claiming such activities as not transparent rather an act of forgery, vandalised campuses of a few private universities. Even students of a well reputed university arranged press conferences and formed human chains in protest of the 'immoral' activities such as taking extra fess in the name of construction of the permanent campus, unfair hike in tuition fess and forcing students to take non credit courses.

"What's the logic of paying Tk 3,500 nine times to construct the new campus where I'll never do any class?" asks a graduate of a private university, "One of my friends got eight A+s in O level, but the university forced him to take many non credit courses on basic subjects. Well-reputed private universities in Bangladesh are notorious for charging extra fees for one thing or the others, whether it is for campus improvement. But they don't give us any scope for research that foreign well-reputed private universities do. To me my graduation is not worthy at all. I had to pay about Tk seven lakh for my graduation, but now I'm getting salary of Tk 15,000 per month from my employer."

He is also quite critical of the credentials of some teachers teaching masters level courses. "Masters degree holder young teachers are the course tutors of master programmes which is not possible abroad. And many students struggle to get internships in acclaimed organisations. The employers question the standard of the curriculum, evaluation process and grading system of the private universities, since these varies university to university."

"Even a master degree holder having outstanding academic background from a well-reputed private university in Bangladesh does not get appointment as a faculty in another private university, which is not acceptable. Rather, sometimes, they appoint substandard job seekers from a public university," comments a frustrated job seeker, who completed his masters from a private university but was refused by another one as a lecturer.

A teacher of well-known private university says, "I don't claim it transparent, since sometimes we feel pressure to give high marks for the reputation of the institution and nobody is there to scrutinise it. But these days situation is improving since the students have realised that 'only higher marks' do not help them getting jobs. So they are interested in studying the subject."

Discrepancies in the recruitment process at private universities, in fact, are another bottleneck, since often it depends on the wish of the founders' or trustees. They try to 'buy' a well-reputed teacher from the public university as a 'show piece' for a discipline. The rest of the faculties consist of mostly fresh master degree holders from the public universities. In most of cases it is nepotism, but not the quality of the candidate that gets priority for the appointment.

From a few rooms above the wholesale market for essentials at Jatrabari to the top floor of a kebab shop in Dhanmandi, private universities can be located anywhere and make good profits like any other commercial enterprise.

Gross anomalies are evident in cases of disciplines that require laboratory facilities. Without having the required facilities many private universities offer technical subjects like textile engineering, pharmacy, medicine, film studies and others. Graduates of these subjects struggle a lot at the job market, since they don't have the required practical knowledge, the basic demand of these subjects.

After completing graduation in Textile Engineering from a private university Mahbubul Alam is not getting any job. "Job providers prefer graduates from the government run Institute of Textile Engineering, considering them to have sound knowledge on machinery. Our university took us to the Institute of Textile Engineering just to introduce us to the machines, but we did not get sufficient expertise on practical application. We have theory based knowledge, which is not enough to get a job."

How come these institutes get permission to offer technical courses without having the required practical facilities? When Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) was asked, Professor Nazrul Islam replied, "They show minimum requirements before getting permission. But after getting permission they enrol two to three times the number of students than they took permission for."

With the intention of regulating the standard of the private universities the government amended the Private University Act in 1998. After investigating the private universities a high-powered government body shutting down five out of the 56 private universities. Later, taking High Court orders four such private universities have begun activities again.

Realising that the existing act was not enough to properly monitor the private universities, the government tried to promulgate a new act, however, it failed twice in 2005 and 2008 in the wake of protests from the trustees of many private universities. Again this year, the University Grants Commission has formulated a new draft for the Private University Act 2009.

"We have already sent the draft to the ministry, which is based on the Private University Ordinance 2008," says Professor Nazrul Islam, "The present situation is absolutely different from the scenario on which the first act was formulated in 1992. In context of the present demand we need a new act."

"Because of political connections private universities have mushroomed in the country, most of which do not maintain minimum standards. We have to develop the standard of the universities for our national interest. There is no alternative but to take drastic action against those which will not be able to fulfil the requirements," he adds.

The glamour and promises of lucrative jobs in the future lure many young people to private universities.

He further says, "To get an overview of the private universities we will introduce uniform grading system to evaluate the performances of the private universities, which will help the guardians know the standard of a university before sending their children to it. We also proposed to introduce an accreditation council to ensure minimum standards."

For the transparency in private universities, the draft of the proposed Private University Act 2009 suggests a massive change in the management level by restructuring the function of the board of trustees, academic council, curriculum committee and teachers appointment committee. The proposed draft has decreased the power of the trustees and has empowered the syndicate headed by the VC.

The new draft proposes the minimum credentials for a VC, pro VC, treasurer and other important positions. According to the proposed draft a VC must have 20 years administrative and research experience including teaching experience at the university level. And the VC will be the head of academic council. The VC will also head of teacher appointment committee.

For getting permission to establish a private university, the founders must deposit TK five crore in a government approved scheduled Bank, proposes the draft. As the minimum requirement to run a private university, the draft proposes to open at least three faculties. It also proposes that the private universities must take permission of curricula from the UGC. Moreover, it has proposed that the teachers working at the public universities must take permission through proper channel to be a faculty of a private university.

However, the draft proposes giving permission to foreign universities to open campus in Bangladesh. According to the UGC chairman this will create an opportunity for the Bangladeshi students to get standard education and make the sector, more competitive.

But the new draft does not have any specific recommendations on the tuition fees: at present, the branded universities take Tk six lakh and above for a graduation programme whereas an average university takes about Tk two lakh for the same subject. But, it's appreciable that the new draft proposes five percent full scholarship for the meritorious students.

"I admit that the tuition fee is very high in some private universities, however, we cannot fix any rate. The better private universities have to pay a huge amount of money to include quality teachers from the public universities," says UGC Chairman.

Doesn't the trend of migration of the senior teachers of public universities to the private universities affect the students of the public universities? The UGC Chairman Professor Nazrul Islam says, "Of course. But as per the current public university rule, a teacher can enjoy nine years of different types of leave to do similar jobs."

This time too the Private University Association strongly protested against the move saying that there is no need to formulate such a new act to make the private universities a subordinate institution of the government and UGC.

Opposing the move, Abul Quasem Haider, vice-president of Private University Association, says, "The Private University Act 1992 amended in 1998 is sufficient to run the private universities. If a new act is formulated in 2009 where will be the legitimacy of our previous activities? So, I believe the government could amend the loopholes of the existing act instead of formulating a new act."

Appreciating a few proposals of the draft of the new act he says that fixing the minimum academic background for the post of VC in the draft is appreciable, since many trustees without having acceptable background used to become VCs. "I also appreciate the proposed minimum requirement of one acre of land for a permanent campus, which was earlier five acres," he says.

Claiming the proposed draft as faulty he adds, "The proposed draft has no specific recommendations to identify the anomalies and take action against the culprit. It will rather justify the irregularities."

Haider also does not accept the proposals of empowering the VCs and syndicates while cutting off the power of the trustees. "Conflict may arise between the syndicate and trustee board. Founders are the loan guarantors, but why should the VCs be the authority of everything? Who will be responsible if a VC leaves the university?" he asks.

"Why should a private university spend Tk 25,000 to take permission from UGC to introduce a new subject? While the Private University Act 1992 facilitated the expansion of private universities the proposed private university act runs on the opposite lines. Control by accreditation council, proposed in it, would destroy the fundamental objectives and concepts of the private universities," Abul Quasem Haider comments.

"In fact, there is no provision in the new act to stop the alleged selling of certificates or other malpractices of private universities," he continues, "We are also against the certificate selling, running outer campuses, distance education and other anomalies, since these anomalies done by a few, are destroying the image of the well-reputed universities. To stop such anomalies, I think the government should form a committee including the representatives of private universities, which will take drastic actions and monitor the private universities under the existing law"

Abul Quasem Haider demands a common grading system for all the public and private universities in the country. Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, on the other hand, thinks the common grading system for the public and private universities will rather enhance the prestige of the public universities.

The government seems determined to introduce the new act. According to ministry sources the new draft will be submitted immediately for the final approval after taking opinions from the other concerned ministries and the representatives of the private universities.

"Since taxation, legal issues and many other questions are involved, we are taking opinions of these concerned ministries. We have also asked the leaders of the private universities to give their opinions and to mention the reason if they differ with any clause of the draft", says a high official of the ministry preferring anonymity, "Forming a new act is call of time. I don't understand why some of the owners of the private universities are opposing it. They should realise that our intention is not against the spirit of private university, rather it is to improve the standards and create a sustainable market of better private universities for the sake of our national interest."

Only a handful of these universities have attained a reputation for providing quality education, but they charge very high tuition fees in the context of a poor country like Bangladesh.

There is little denying that given the limited admission capacity of public universities, private universities by and large are providing alternatives for multitudes of young people to be absorbed in the higher education system. It is equally true that barring a handful of universities, most others need to be improved while there are a large many that are substandard, mere signboard organisations, some of them even selling certificates. Furthermore, there is a genuine parental concern over the high fees charged by the universities and their bend towards commercialisation, an issue that will have to be addressed in tandem with considerations of quality and outreach to the middle class.

It is expected that the private and public universities should run side by side with the public universities. The quality of both types of universities must be brought up to the standard whereby they will produce enlightened citizens of this nation.


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