Monday, November 9, 2009

Moonlighting by public university teachers

The University Grants Commission (UGC) Annual Report, 2008 contains many interesting facts about the public universities that are to say the least, very interesting and revealing. The contents of the Report have found its way to the media, which is another interesting point because it is still to be presented before the President. The public universities are those universities that are funded out of the taxpayer's money. Dhaka University is among these public universities that are regulated by the UGC that has finalised the Annual Report.

One interesting fact in the Report is the acknowledgement of something widely known; that most teachers of the public university regularly "moonlight" (illegally hold another job) in the private university. Just as a government servant cannot hold another job in addition to the one in government, so must the teacher in the public university because his/her job is a full time one. The consequences of public university teachers moonlighting are extremely adverse because it not only deprives the students that they are supposed to teach; such "moonlighting" also has been identified in the Annual Report as a major cause of the sessions jams that takes away from the students vital years of their lives. In fact, if a public university teacher can "moonlight" with such adverse impact to the students for whom the university is established in the first place, then there is no reason why the government servants should not be allowed to hold a second job or even a third one outside his government job. But then even thinking that a government servant should be allowed to "moonlight" will be only in a fit of insanity. In case of the Public University teacher moonlighting, the thought of it should also be in a similar fit of insanity. But then sadly and unfortunately, these teachers have been doing such "moonlighting" from the time the private universities have come on the scene.

Before the emergence of the private universities, teachers of a public university have been engaging themselves in consultancy. In fact, one of the benefits that have accrued with the country's independence is the need of consultancy in the government that in the Pakistani days was monopolised by consultants mainly located in the then West Pakistan. With independence, such consultancy became instantly available right at the doorsteps of the biggest of the public universities, namely the Dhaka University. And, lo and behold! before the country had time to even be aware of this sudden opening of the doors of consultancy and money for the teachers of Dhaka University, they were deep into business. As the cake of such consultancy business was huge, the benefits spread to the other public universities.

There are a few points that must be mentioned before extending the arguments further. It is not that all teachers of the public universities are indulging in such "moonlighting." The same is true with consultancy. The UGC Report has also mentioned a few other non-teaching and research activities such as round tables, seminars, TV talk shows in which the teachers of the public university indulge on a regular basis. In such activities also the majority of the teachers of the public university are not involved. These facts notwithstanding, such activities in the centre of which is the issue of "moonlighting" in the private university by the public university teachers have directly impacted the terrible truth about the public university in Bangladesh, namely the issue of session jam. It is an issue that no one can explain to someone who does not live in Bangladesh without a sense of shame. In the beginning when session jam became an issue following our independence, the problem was placed squarely on the nine months long war of liberation. It was explained that as a consequence of those lost nine months, there was a natural delay in holding examinations in the public university according to schedule.

But then, those nine months could have been easily adjusted over a few academic sessions and the problem of session jam should have been history long ago. That did not happen and instead the problem aggravated where eventually examinations were being held years after schedule. The UCG Report has focused on this shameful fact of session jam and has blamed the public university teachers for sustaining and aggravating such session jam. A newspaper that interviewed some students of Dhaka University quoted one of them as saying: "Some teachers use the Dhaka University job as the passport to part-time jobs in private universities or in consultancy firms for a handsome amount of money."

A university is meant to be a place of study and research. A university teacher cannot have any other preoccupation that impedes his duty to the students which is teaching and his duty to himself and the university that employs him which is to do research. No university in the world employs a teacher for consultancy, "moonlighting" in another university, appearing in a talk show, etcetera ignoring or avoiding his teaching and research responsibilities. A nephew of mine who is now a Professor in a Canadian University once complained to me that he has been placed by his university in a difficult situation as it has asked him to become the Chairman of the Department. In astonishment I asked him why. He said that the responsibility will interfere adversely with his research work where he would not be able to devote the time that he wanted. I have no doubt that if university teachers in the developed world were aware of what the UGC Report has written about the public university and its teachers in Bangladesh, they would be forced to believe that the Report was talking about universities on some other planet.

However, sadly the unbelievable things that are happening in the public university in Bangladesh are not just restricted only to what has been revealed in the UGC Report. When I studied in Dhaka University and later taught there as a teacher in the 1960s, there were in the entire social science and arts faculties a total of not more than a dozen Professors. Today, each department in these faculties can boast more than that number. In fact, between the pre-liberation and post-liberation period, the Dhaka University has reversed the pyramid having the maximum number of Professors, with Associate Professors, Assistant Professors and Lecturers declining as in the structure of the reverse pyramid. Of course, if the reverse pyramid was the consequence of brilliance of the teachers manifested in original research, then the country would have been proud and its public university teachers should have earned the country international recognition which is sadly not the case.

With such abundance of Professors, Dhaka University for example should have been a world leader in academic excellence. This is unfortunately not true in a general sense. A Google search on list of top universities of the world places Dhaka University after 4000; a great disappointment for a university that once prided itself as "the Oxford of the East."

While claiming for themselves independence as free thinkers in society as distinct from government servants who have to work in a straight jacket, the university teachers have nevertheless adopted from the government servants their basis of promotion based on length of service. For example, a Lecturer is eligible for becoming an Assistant Professor after a required number of years of service. An Assistant Professor is promoted to the next rank after a few more years and then to the post of a Professor after some additional years. There is however a strange exception here for a university teacher as compared to a bureaucrat. The bureaucrat cannot be promoted till there is a clear vacancy. The university teacher does not need the vacancy. He/she gets promoted after the necessary years and as he/she moves up the ladder, so does his/her position! This explains the reverse pyramid.

There are a few other exceptions about the teachers of the public university. They can, again as free thinkers not to be bound by bureaucratic rules, have the right of doing politics in alignment with the political parties. Thus one can see teachers openly grouped on political lines in the public university although for some strange reason, they feel shy to acknowledge openly such alignment and instead group themselves under colours such as White, Blue, etcetera!

In the end of it all, a public university is run with taxpayer's money. Hence it should not be allowed to do what its teachers are doing. There has to be accountability where there is none at the moment. The UGC Report should also encourage the policymakers of the country to have another look at the 1973 University Act that a lot of people say is the root cause of what is happening in the public university.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 10, 2009

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