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A public menace in private universities?

  • Published at 05:33 pm July 23rd, 2016
A public menace in private universities?
One of the few bright events on the country’s education horizons in the last century was the long-overdue green light to non-government entities to sponsor private universities. With the few public sector institutions overtly crowded and entirely engrossed in the abomination known as “student politics,” those seeking a basic non-technical higher education in Bangladesh had essentially two options: Go abroad in the nearby region or go abroad far away. The wealthier folks sent their offspring to the English-speaking countries while the slightly less wealthy ones sent their children to India, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. Ironically, these folks -- especially the politicians amongst them -- were also the ones that rarely stopped waxing eloquent about the “glory” of student politics; after all, it was good for political consumption by their mass cadres and quite beneficial for their own children who, were they to return with their degrees from British and American universities, would have even less competition for jobs from their domestically credentialed peers. With the introduction of private universities, the field was evened just a little, giving graduates of some of these institutions a chance at competing with their more affluent and better connected compatriots who had come back with the BBAs and MBAs from the West. And one of the most compelling reasons behind this balancing has been the fact that the curse of “student politics” has been kept at bay at these institutions, thus avoiding issues of public safety, extortion, and questionable academic evaluation. Alas … Bangladesh has a penchant for not letting a good thing alone, be it the Sundarbans or private universities. Firm in its belief that no tragedy should be ignored if it helps push an aggrandising agenda, the “student” front of the ruling party -- with the blessings of its spokesmen in the cabinet -- has made clear its desire to move its tentacles into the heretofore sanctified precincts of non-government colleges and universities. Whether the enabling legislation for private universities allows this or not is largely irrelevant: Since when has the minutiae of the law ever prevented the desires of the members of the ruling party? How this will pan out, if allowed to go forward, is not exactly a matter of conjecture. The same extortion rackets, dormitory mafia, and thuggery that are par for the course in most public institutions will make their grand entrance into the private ones, shattering the silent contract whereby parents fork over a small fortune to the bursars in return for some semblance of a peaceful, rigorous education for their children. Students not ready to buy into the ruling party’s ideology will be bullied, threatened, and pushed to the margins in fear, thus compromising the very basic precepts of a holistic education; teachers not willing to turn a blind eye to blatant academic misconduct by the extortionists will either be afraid for their safety or, if they are bright, take their scholarship with them to distant shores where “student” leaders don’t control the distribution of grades. And please, don’t say “but the police will protect …” You and I both know how much the police protect those victimised by ruling party cadres. It is not that I have one of those typical middle-class aversions to politics, or even campus politics for that matter. On the contrary, one of my majors as an undergraduate was political science and, as an undergrad, I was very involved with the college branch of the Republican Party which, in turn, led me to work on the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole in 1996 and George W Bush in 2000. Even today, as an adjunct member of the faculty, I regularly teach a course or two in the general area of politics. Unfortunately, the kind of student politics prevalent in the United Kingdom or the United States -- premised on debating policies, learning the democratic process, mastering the art of free elections -- is simply non-existent in Bangladesh, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. The idea that belonging to a preferred student political organisation is a ticket to impunity from the law of the land or a guarantee of good grades, is a concept utterly alien to the culture of academia on both sides of the Atlantic. Bangladesh has a version of “student” politics all of its own, and it isn’t anymore a Bengali “Oxford Union” than the University of Dhaka is an “Oxford of the East.” Those myths aside, the harsh reality is that, in the present day and age, campus politics in Bangladesh is a curse that is affordable by those whose children study safely on foreign shores or by those who can pay private university tuition at home. It appears that the former simply wants to remove any potential competition for its children from the offspring of the latter. There is no other rational explanation for the absurdity of the proposal to bring organised thuggery into private universities.
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