Dhaka Courier

Are universities academic or political institutions?


The question sound dramatic and rhetorical but the last 3 months has been such that the matter has become one of some urgency. Universities face serious questions about their survival as educational institutions.

One after another, public universities have fallen to the axe of disrepute. Dhaka, Rajshahi, BUET and Jahangirnagar and the BSM University could be extreme examples but none of the other public universities are doing well. It’s not a question of a particular University, it’s the system which doesn’t seem to be working. Jahangirnagar has sadly epitomized the extreme crisis.

What are universities for?

Whether they are badly run and not really serving higher education is not the debate but what exactly is the purpose of maintaining these highly costly institutions is the question.

The debate centers around three main areas of institutional identity and purpose. They are:  A. a space for political control of street agitation if needed. B. Keeping loyal academics comfortable thereby creating a power base amongst the intellectuals. C. Keeping the BCS supply chain well fed so that various cadres of official services are produced by the Universities.

   Almost all the university campuses are famous for political agitations and their long history attests to that. In other words they are historically speaking, political institutions which have a record to prove that. For example, Dhaka university glories are rarely academic unless one is talking pre-1947 era of Satyan Bose and R.C. Mazumder or maybe Dani before 1971. However, from, 1947 onwards it’s been known for its agitation activities not academic performances or achievements. The great dates of 1952 and 1969 as well as 1971 March all belong to DU. Other universities have similar dates of glory.

Even fast forwarding to 2018-19 shows how robustly the government opponents - quota movement and safe road movement- were taken down by Chhatra League activists particularly of Dhaka University.

So the political purpose of keeping universities going is well understood.  In return, the activists are well rewarded though once In a while there are hiccups when students and teacher loyalists got into a conflict such as at the JU. It was a big fuss and sadly for the students it coincided with the wider crackdown and two CL leaders were eased out. But they have not faced any legal charges though the act was illegal in nature.

Tests of loyalty

It’s from this cut-money affair at JU that the wider mess is noted. VCs are loyalists and their objective is to provide such an environment rather than an academic one. In fact, everyone promotes that and the GOB wants that too. So how can an academic environment be reached if not many are interested in teaching or research? What of course is their main objective is maintaining political links and advantages that yield many sorts of perks.

If looked at from an academic point of view this may seem off but if done from the perspective of a para-political organization this will make more sense. What happened at JU and could/may happen elsewhere is the case of a broken link between two groups of loyalists. Another example of that is the BUET incident where the VC said that he couldn’t control CL.

Chhatra League held the upper hand at that place and crossed the limit and the result was the murder that has politically embarrassed the party in power.  However, this is about the internal management of politics rather than deciding how the universities should be run.

Cadre supply depot

There is a particular function of the students which is very serious but not entirely political.  This relates to production of administration services cadres who have to pass pit through the Universities and sit BCS for exams. This is very important because public universities are expected to graduate reliable students who will be loyal to the idea of loyalty when they serve. Hence the universities serve as role models of the future government structure. Once they see both students and teachers as part of the same cluster, their future functioning will be more useful for the government.

More politics?

Given these objectives of public universities, the reading of the crisis should read as two sided. One relates to the concern of the public and delivery of education which is not a prime objective at all of the universities so there is actually no crisis at all. It’s a self created crisis of the public who thinks it’s their money which is being spent to educate students. However delivering education is only one of the objectives and not the main one so actually there is no crisis really.

The other crisis is actually about the internal situation of the government where it’s facing obstacles whether in the universities or the more directly involved political groups. This management has not been very positive till date but rehab work is on including weeding out elements who won’t serve the political causes best.

Given that approach the universities too may face some changes but they will not be about anything other than political comfort. On view of that we will not see any change of the scene but possibly more politicization of the academic scene.

  • Are universities academic or political institutions?
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 19
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • DhakaCourier

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