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The private dilemma

  • Published at 03:28 pm October 19th, 2018
Will they all receive quality higher education?
Will they all receive quality higher education? / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

When it comes to private universities, quantity does not mean quality

In a recent news article I read about the grand opening of a campus building of a private university that was attended by dignitaries including ministers. We were informed that this is one of the lucky 14 private universities in Bangladesh which had their own premises, not a rented one. 

When you hear this news, you cringe in disbelief that out of 103 private universities in Bangladesh, only 14 have their own campuses -- the rest hold classes in rented premises. Indeed, these universities are strewn across all corners of the city, from north to south, from east to west.

The exponential growth of these universities remind one of the market mentalities that once propelled the RMG industry in Bangladesh a few decades ago. The first private university was set up in 1992; thereafter, 16 private universities (14 in Dhaka and two in Chittagong) were set up in six years after the enactment of the Private Universities Act the same year.

But since that time, the number has grown aggressively. From less than 40 around 2001-2002, the number increased in 2008 to about 56. Now the number is a staggering 103, about 80% of which are in Dhaka.

The question that comes to mind automatically is not whether we need these many tertiary educational institutes, but how these institutions operate? How are they funded? Where do they get so many university-level educators? 

These universities are not institutions that are founded by charitable trusts or foundations. Most of these have been founded by individuals, or a group of individuals, some of whom may have been motivated by a desire to make higher education available to all. And these institutions cannot operate unless they are financially viable. 

A few years ago, I met a very successful businessman who had made his fortune in RMG. He explained to me that all his wealth would be meaningless if he did not spend some of it for people’s welfare. I thought he was planning to build a hospital in his locality, but he surprised me by saying that he was setting up a university, not in his district, but in Dhaka. 

When I questioned whether there were already sufficient universities in Dhaka, he said that he was a businessman, and he could see that there was a vast demand for universities. Indeed, he started his new venture within the year, not by building a campus, but by renting a multi-storied building. 

I cite this to underscore the mindless growth of private universities, with no oversight of these institutions, the education they provide, and the standards they maintain. Increase in the number of universities does not necessarily lead to increase in standards or quality of education -- the quality of the faculty, curriculum, student intake, and facilities dictate that. How do you assure quality education, when the attention of these founders of higher education is on revenue rather than education itself.

The situation is not going to change soon unless there are drastic steps to address the expanding number of high school graduates. Last year the number of students who took HSC examination crossed the million mark, with about 65% pass rate. Impossible to accommodate these HSC graduates in public universities and colleges, private universities are the obvious next choice. But not all can afford the cost of education the private universities offer.  

The irony of higher education in Bangladesh is that while our policy planners want to expand its availability to all, there is hardly any attention to the management of this sector. The University Grants Commission is ineffective in having any control over private universities because the entity has no enforcement mechanism of the regulatory control it is purported to have over a private university. 

Although the private universities act of 1992 was replaced by a similar act in 2010 that apparently strengthened the role of the UGC, the monitoring role of UGC is nominal and feckless at best. The entity still retains the authority to endorse or reject any new proposal for a private university, but it has little authority over canceling a registration when a private university fails to fulfill conditions of license to operate, such as maintaining a balanced curriculum, and quality of teaching.

Private universities fulfill a vacuum in higher education in Bangladesh, but most of these universities are market driven, not mission driven. That is why most offer marketable courses such as information technology and business administration. And as the finances of these institutions depend on the revenue they generate from fees, they select students more on the basis of their ability to pay.

The private universities on their side have argued against UGC interference in running their institutions. They cite examples from other countries, particularly the US, to support their case. Indeed, in an ideal situation this should be so. But in a country where educational institutions thrive on a general lack of places of higher education, one would expect these institutions would provide an atmosphere where quality and standards rule the institutions, and not money. If the intent is to educate and train our youth, the means to do so should focus on the quality. 

I know it is a tall order, but could not the Association of Private Universities come up with proposals that regulate them in a fair and transparent way? Perhaps set up a minimum standard of buildings and facilities that a campus should have? Could they not follow a minimum criterion for faculty recruitment, as well as admission of students? 

If the Association really cared for good education, it could hold the entities accountable for what they promised when they got their charter approved by the government. If they cared for education, they would agree to a minimum standard for their teaching faculty and student admission. They would also allow regular auditing by their peer institutions on the quality of education, facilities, and student performance. 

If the private universities were indeed set up for providing quality education, they must prove first that they can actually do so. Then, we may welcome more universities to fulfill the ever-growing need for higher education. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.