Friday, January 25, 2013

Teaching in Private Universities: Who are we fooling?

Daily Sun
13th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Daily Sun published last week an interesting investigative report on the teaching status in the private universities. It showed that at most private universities, the teacher student ratio is so adverse that to expect quality product coming out of these institutions would be wishing for something that will not happen. The University Grants Commission, the body that regulates the private universities has mandated the teacher student ratio should not cross 1:20. Against this standard, all the private universities are outside the limit with some of the universities having a ratio as bad as 1:83! These universities are flouting the teacher: student ratio with contempt, like they are the regulatory body and can pretty much do what they want. With the number of private universities growing alarmingly, mostly in Dhaka,  no one seems to ask one fundamental question. Where are the teachers coming from?  

In truth, no one seems to be bothered. I remember long ago back in the 1980s when I was in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington I had met Ambassador Moslehuddin Ahmed who recently passed away who pioneered the establishment of the North-South University, the first of its kind in Bangladesh. He wanted the Embassy to assist him with a few appointments with people he wanted to meet in the University of Maryland, College Park. He wanted to meet them for ideas to establish the North South University in Dhaka on sound footing. I thought he was a dreamer. I could not imagine at that time that there was any possibility of a private university in Dhaka.

My reasons for a negative view on private universities in Dhaka at that time were based on a few hard to explain facts. First, I could not understand why someone would be interested to study in a private university in subjects he/she could study in the public universities with much better teaching staff for a ridiculously low fee against exorbitant fees in a private university. In fact, this aspect of the fees is something that no one has still explained satisfactorily. All over the world, as we now know, there is a mix of private and public universities where there is a difference of fees in these two types of institutions. Nevertheless, what we do not know or if we do, we seem to push it under the rug, is, the difference in fees between the public and the private universities in Bangladesh is simply unbelievable.

The fees that public institutions take from the students is so meager that one wonders why these institutions take these fees at all. Why not make education free in the public universities? In contrast, the fees that the private universities charge are so high that ordinary folks simply cannot hope or dream to send their sons/daughters to these institutions. As a consequence, in the public universities, the value of education has been downgraded to such an extent that no one cares when a student enters the university and leaves it. Our public universities have thus become something unique for which they should find a place in the Guinness Book of Records for introducing the concept of “session jams” in educational institutions during peace time!

Together with the session jams, the public universities also became extremely politicized where it was just not the students who were acting as agents of the discredited politics of the country; even the teachers were contributing their share. As a consequence, the public universities became unstable where parents with means  were sending their children to study in India, UK and the United States. The private universities have emerged as a consequence of the fear of well to do parents with the public universities. Thus when the first private universities were established, like for instance the North-South University and the Independent University, they were able to establish themselves immediately. They got good students and were also able to provide quality education. They of course made hefty sums of money from the exorbitant fees they charged.

Then as happens with anything good in Bangladesh, there was a rush to follow this initial success of a few private universities. The University Grants Commission that had the responsibility to regulate these institutions was unable to keep pace with the mushroom growth. Right under its nose; these private universities became tools in the hands of those who entered into the sector with business concerns uppermost in their minds than their desire to serve the cause of knowledge. The UGC slept and forgot to ask a few fundamental questions. First, why was this sudden rush on parts of a few to serve the cause of education in the country? Second, where were the teachers coming from? As the USG slept, the public universities came to the rescue as their teachers started moon shining in the private universities.  In fact moon shining would be an inappropriate description; the highly qualified teachers of the public universities showed more interest in teaching in the private universities because they were paid very well and the public university authorities and the UGC looked the other way.

Soon, even moon shining by the teachers of the public universities in the private universities was unable to keep pace with the mushroom growth of private universities. Thus the private universities that did not have adequate teachers working full time to start have now been stretched beyond their limits to maintain the teacher/student ratio as mandated by the UGC. The prospect of teachers with PhD or post graduate degrees from abroad with chance to serve in a foreign university or institution coming to serve in a private university in Bangladesh is bleak. With this being the case, where would these universities look for qualified teaching staff?  Hence, the ratio of teachers to students in these private universities is going to worsen till such time as the country would have teachers with PhDs or post graduate degrees acquired in the country and ready to serve in these universities.

The only way out of the doomsday scenario facing the future of public universities on the very important factor of teacher student ratio is to first, put a temporary stop to the growth of any new private university immediately; and, second, phase out the good number of private universities that is contributing nothing to the standard of education in the country but are there to allow few individuals make money. The UGC does not allow money to be taken out as profit by these universities. Nevertheless, there are many tricks by which the “sponsors” of these private universities are beating the system with the UGC as the watchdog against these tricks, unable or unwilling to take action.

One trick through which the “sponsors” of private universities are making money is the sale of degrees; now a very well established fact. Even the best of the private universities manipulate with the grades. Overall, there is just no supervision in the quality of education they provide. In fact, most of these universities dish out BBAs and MBAs so that those who pass out can enter the country’s banking industry that provides the best jobs in the country. In fact, if the private banks had not taken off after the 1990s to serve the country’s RMG sector, there would not have been so many private universities in the country. This one dimensional approach to growth and development of such an important sector as private universities cannot be good for the country.

There is immediate need to look into the state of affairs within the private universities. A few good private universities, much needed for the country, are being contaminated by a large number of such universities that are openly involved in doing business with education and breaking the backbone of higher education in the country. As a starter, the UGC should enforce the mandated teacher/student ratio to begin the weeding process.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary.

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