“The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought.” Professor Bill Readings (Source: The University in Ruins)
I attended a two-day convention titled “What Type of University We Want: Higher Education, Policy and Structure” which was organized by University Teachers’ Network – a group of socially conscious and academically upfront university teachers – at Social Science gallery of Jahangirnagar University on April 11-12, 2019. Teachers from different universities, both public and private, attended the convention to discuss how to improve the quality of education at the country’s higher education institutions and to ensure intellectual/progressive thinking at universities. As the convener, Professor Sayeed Ferdous of Anthropology Department at Jahangirnagar University inaugurated the programme while Professor Mirza Taslima Sultana of the same department of JU moderated the opening session.
On the first day of the convention, eminent educationist and public intellectual Serajul Islam Choudhury, professor emeritus of Dhaka University, underscored the importance of two things – students’ union and higher education in mother tongue – which have been missing in our universities. Firstly, according to him, students’ unions are needed for ensuring social and cultural education of the students. But they do not have unions at higher education institutions. Secondly, the quality of education has deteriorated over the years because we do not have original textbooks and research works - written or translated in Bangla. The problem he pointed out is the medium of instruction that is not Bangla (mother tongue) though some university teachers give lectures in mother tongue. Unfortunately, the delivery/lecture is not up to the mark in terms of explanation and diction. He also referred to the effective students’ movements during the Pakistan period and some democratic movements in recent times. Professor Choudhury said, “The authorities fear students and try to use the universities to retain the existing social structure.” He also added, “The aim of a university is to create good human beings who will raise questions about social problems, reform and serve the society, and also stand against oppression or injustice.”
Professor Abul Kashem Fazlul Haque of DU and Professor Anu Muhammad of JU spoke in the opening session and put emphasis on the freedom of expression and thoughts. The former talked about how abnormally the universities are now operating and how the government is trying to control the universities. And the latter one talked about the lack of independence or autonomy in four public universities – Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chattogram and Jahangirnagar – and also about the torture cells in the residential halls “gono-rooms” for the first-year-students at the public universities. According to Professor Anu Muhammad, this is a “special project” of the government so that nobody can talk against authorities’ faults.
In the second session of the opening day, Rajshahi university teacher Bakhtiar Ahmed presented a paper on “University Grants Commission: Strategy” where he focused on the strategic plan for higher education in Bangladesh (2006-2026) supported by the World Bank, and also shed light on the UGC’s role as a regulatory body. This discussion also included how the idea of privatization was being injected into public universities in the name of increasing source of income or generating revenue. This is the reason why we see, nowadays, almost all public universities launching/opening evening or weekend programmes (MA/M.Sc./MBA) in many departments where students’ are to pay exorbitant tuition fees to get a degree/certificate. And in complying with the 20-year strategic plan, some departments -- under Humanities & Liberal Arts and Social Sciences faculties -- are facing challenges because their degrees are deemed to be less demanding on the job market. However, Prof. Tanzim Uddin Khan of DU, Prof. Raihan Rhyne of JU and Prof. Ainoon Nahar of JU also discussed the pros and cons of the strategic plan for higher education in Bangladesh.
A workshop on “1973 University Act and the Universities’ Autonomy” - - held in the afternoon session in the conference room of Social Science building - - was conducted by Prof Kamrul Hasan Mamun of the Department of Physics at Dhaka University. He shared his own experience of teaching at DU and views on how this autonomy had been misused on campus. According to him, the teachers’ elections in key positions (Dean, Pro-VC, VC and etc.) are the main cause for the deterioration of quality education and of academic environment as well. Our universities lack international and multicultural characteristics because we have failed to draw international students over the years. Though once upon a time students from different countries – Iran, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and etc. -- used to come to Dhaka University for higher education, these days our students go to those countries for PhD. The over-politicization of teachers’ recruitment also results in the appointment of teachers who are less-qualified and more interested about proving their political allegiance. This is why, the truly meritorious teachers - - who are dedicated to teaching and research - - are being sidelined, and the less capable ones are holding the key positions - both academic and administrative - at public universities.
The second day of the convention started with the morning session on “Beyond Public Universities: Experiences at Private and ‘Government’ Universities” which was conducted by Professor Rehnuma Ahmed at the seminar room of the university’s Zahir Raihan auditorium. Some private university teachers – Professor Salimullah Khan of ULAB, Professor Sumon Rahman of ULAB, Mr Kibria Islam of Jessore Science & Technology University and Dr Afsan Chowdhury (part-time faculty) of Brac University -- participated in the discussion and shared their personal experiences of teaching at their institutions. Professor Salimullah Khan’s statement was found significant and worthwhile. According to him, the teachers at private universities are not allowed to have academic unions or teachers’ associations. They are also discouraged to teach more than five years at a university. Their discussion mainly focused on how the private universities are operating and how the government university teachers are struggling to cope with the politicised environment where political consideration overrides merit in recruitment process.
Professor Rushad Faridi of Dhaka University drew our attention to the present crises in teaching and research environment/facilities at universities while presenting a paper titled “Teaching and Research” in the second session conducted by DU Professor Samina Lutfa. According to Professor Rushad Faridi, we have to question whether or not a teacher goes to teach in classroom regularly, let alone the quality of teaching. He said, “When a teacher’s accountability is in question, how could we bring research here?” Professor Nasim Akhter Hussain of Jahangirnagar University, Professor Fahmidul Haque of Dhaka University, DU faculty Mohammad Azam and BAU teacher Kazi Farid also took part in the discussion. According to Professor Fahmidul Haque, university teachers tend to write research papers in English instead of Bangla because if they write in Bangla, they are to write by themselves. But when they write in English, they can insert many things on paper by applying “copy and paste” technique. It sounds really frustrating!
In the concluding session, Professor Sayeed Ferdous of JU presented a paper on “Admission, Recruitment and Administration” while Professor Manosh Chowdhury of the Department of Anthropology at JU and Mr Kazi Maruf discussed the topic. The convention ended with a plenary session on 12 April at 5 pm. Now the teachers (belonging to University Teachers’ Network) who put relentless efforts in holding the convention – which seems to be the first of its kind in Bangladesh – will compile the accepted recommendations and submit them to the UGC and the government very soon.
We know that a ‘high-sounding’ project dubbed “Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP)” -- funded by the World Bank in collaboration with the UGC and the Ministry of Education -- ended in December 2018. Most of the public and private universities came under the project. The aim of this project was to enhance the quality of education at universities, establish good governance and practise quality culture in higher education institutions. However, we - the academics - need to be very aware of the prescription given by the World Bank in the name of strategic plan for higher education in Bangladesh (2006-2026) so this plan cannot turn out to be a straitjacket. Last but not the least, we must have our freedom of expression and thoughts, and keep speaking without fear - in support of standard practices free of unhealthy partisan politics and mercantile attitude- at universities because we have to uphold ethos, philosophy and prestige of higher education. Otherwise, our higher education institutions would turn into business corporations.
Sheikh Nahid Neazy, associate professor and chair, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.