A premium on quality

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HEQEP, Accreditation Council and Quality Assurance Mechanism at Private Universities in Bangladesh

The growth of private universities in Bangladesh is phenomenal. Their contribution to imparting higher education to a large number of students (approximately 65 percent of the total students studying at tertiary level) is undeniable. At present, the total number of private universities stands at 101. A few more are in the pipeline to get the government approval. These universities are run by the Boards of Trustees (BoTs) under the Private University Act-2010. But some universities are allegedly found violating the PU Act-2010. This is happening because the questions of establishing Quality Assurance (QA) mechanism and the necessity of establishing good governance at the universities have not been seriously/sincerely discussed in academia and policy making forums since the inception of establishment of the universities at private sector. Many of them (university authorities) are still turning a blind eye to the irregularities already identified and addressed by the UGC and the Ministry of Education. However, the Higher Education Commission Act 2018 is underway in order to remove all these irregularities and ensure quality of education at universities!

Since the Bangladesh Accreditation Council Bill 2017 was passed in the parliament it has been more than a year. As per the bill, this council would be an autonomous statutory body headed by a chairman - - who would be a senior university professor having 25 years of teaching experience and knowledge about quality assurance and accreditation - - with four full-time and eight part-time members. The council will be responsible for evaluating the programs and certifying the institution level qualities of both public and private universities. But we have not seen any substantive progress so far.

Meanwhile some 69 universities - 31 public and 38 private - have come under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) being implemented by the UGC and jointly financed by the World Bank (contributing 88%) and the Government of Bangladesh (contributing 12%). As part of this project, the Quality Assurance Unit (QAU) of UGC has already set up 69 Institutional Quality Assurance Cells (IQACs) under which the Self-Assessment Committees (SACs) of 812 program offering entities have been conducting Self Assessment (SA) process at present. And some of the SACs have completed their SA reports which have been evaluated by the External Peer Reviewers (EPRs) comprising one foreign expert and two local experts.

These programme level self-assessment reports have been made on the basis of the feedback given by five stakeholders - -faculty members, current students, alumni, non-academic staff and prospective employers - - and later on submitted to the IQACs. The aspects - - governance; curriculum design; physical facilities; admission progress and achievements; teaching & learning, assessment of students’ performance; student support services; staff & facilities and research & extension - - have also been reviewed and judged by the panel of EPRs. Now the programs are looking forward to preparing their improvement plan which would be implemented in next 4 years. This is how the self-assessment process will complete a five-year cycle.  (Source: UGC Bulletin, April-June 2017)

No doubt, this has been a positive enterprise undertaken by the Government to keep all the universities under a uniform “Quality Assurance” mechanism developed by the UGC. And to make it happen, the University Grants Commission (UGC) needs to be strengthened and empowered to act independently without any wicked political pressure. The UGC chairman Professor Abdul Mannan has already submitted a proposal to the honourable Prime Minister for the formation of Higher Education Commission (HEC) for enhancing and ensuring the quality of tertiary education in Bangladesh. But it does hardly make a difference if the Commission, when/if constituted, is not run by a very effective and strong panel of some righteous, courageous and enlightened educationists or intellectuals who have unquestionable reputation in both academic and administrative affairs.

Since I happened to head the Self-Assessment Committee (SAC) in the Department of English at Stamford University Bangladesh, I reached out to all the stakeholders for their feedback and comments on the survey questionnaires prepared by the Quality Assurance Unit (QAU) under HEQEP. The questionnaire contains nine specific areas on which the respondents made their comments. The areas are Governance; Curriculum Content Design and Review; Student Admission, Progress and Achievements; Physical Facilities; Teaching-Learning and Assessment; Student Support Services; Staff and Facilities; Research and Extension; Process Management & Continuous Improvement. We have received varied opinions/comments from the stakeholders/respondents, and most of them put emphasis on good governance, physical facilities, teaching-learning activities, staff & facilities and process management & continuous improvement. Now I would like to briefly discuss why the universities need to work on nine QA areas for ensuring quality higher education and making a continuous improvement plan.

a) Governance: When it comes to talking about governance at private universities, we do not get a very clear picture of good governance. I think not a good number of universities are practicing good governance although quality assurance mostly depends on the integrated approach of management by the statutory bodies and individual units of the university. I do not know how many universities have the well-defined and well-written statutes in conformity with the Private University Act-2010. We know accountability and transparency are the key to ensuring good governance at an educational institution. So the top management of a university should make information - - regarding annual budget and development plan - - public and accessible to the stakeholders.

b) Curriculum Content Design and Review: If we shed light on curriculum content design and review, we will get a bleak picture. In a recent workshop held on 6 February 2017 at UGC, the chairman of the regulatory authority Prof Abdul Mannan said, “Our existing curriculum at universities is not suitable and up-to-date. We have to make a need-based and standard curriculum for the universities in order to achieve the targets of Vision-2021.” Though we are supposed to upgrade the curriculum every 4 years, most of the universities have failed to make revisions over the years.

c) Student Admission, Progress and Achievements: This is a reality that opportunities for higher education in the universities are limited. Besides, selection of the eligible students/candidates for the particular academic program is important to maintain quality in higher education. In this regard BRAC University VC Prof Syed Saad Andaleeb says, “Bangladesh needs strong and capable human capital. This is what the country needs to invest in on a priority basis. Especially, the government should link primary and secondary education to higher education - a supply chain perspective – to ensure coordinated and overall quality of education. Unless education quality improves at lower levels of the chain, you cannot transform lead into gold.” (The Daily Star Special Issue on Private Universities and The Growth of Higher Education published on 6 Nov. 2016)

d) Physical Facilities: Quality physical facilities are an integral part of quality learning opportunities at university. Physical facilities include adequate and well-equipped classrooms, library, laboratories, seminar/reading rooms, medical center, auditorium, separate common rooms for both male & female students, cafeteria, separate hygienic washrooms for both female & male students, play ground, gymnasium, tennis/badminton court, swimming pool, etc. To make a congenial academic atmosphere, physical facilities must be appropriate, adequate, comfortable, safe and well-maintained. But unfortunately, many private universities are still struggling to ensure required physical facilities due to the authorities’ indifference and the dearth of sufficient space.

e) Teaching-Learning and Assessment: Teaching-learning activities are the core part of quality assurance at the universities. Teaching techniques or methods should be modernized and innovative so students remain focused, responsive and keen to learn the subject taught in classroom. Appropriate course outline including lesson plan, technology integration, a comprehensive skill development plan incorporating curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities are very important for ensuring quality education. However, assessment procedure must be designed to test abilities and skills of students for integration and application of knowledge and analytical approach. When talking about providing general education courses to the students in order to develop five crucial skills, BRAC University VC Prof Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb says, “These include critical thinking, communication skills, quantitative skills, digital competence and global awareness.” (The Daily Star Special Issue on Private Universities and The Growth of Higher Education published on 6 Nov. 2016).

Another big problem we have identified is that some private universities do not even follow the uniform grading policy (approved by the UGC) for assessment of students’ performance. If it goes on, it will create huge discrimination against the passing out students/graduates.

f) Student Support Services: The student support services include academic guidance, co-curricular & extra-curricular activities, career planning & placement, alumni services, community services, etc. This support system contributes to the social and academic development of the students. It will also enhance quality learning experience and promote leadership skills of the students. It is evident that some universities are failing to provide the students with quality support services.

g) Staff and Facilities: The staff (both academic and non-academic) are the major players in teaching-learning and research activities at a university. Efficiency and commitment of the staff are the key success factors to all academic activities and quality assurance mechanism. Recruitment process must be fair and appropriate in order to have a good effective team of academic and non-academic staff. Entry qualifications should be well-defined. Salary and other admissible benefits (festival bonus, Baishakh bonus, gratuity, contributory provident fund, health insurance, etc.) should be attractive and competitive so the staff can feel motivated and interested in working sincerely for ensuring quality education at universities. Teachers should be given some financial support for their higher study at home or abroad and for their participation in any international conference/seminars. Promotion must be on the basis of well-defined and relevant key performance indicators (KPIs). Documented teaching performance evaluation by the students is also a very important part of the KPIs. But unfortunately there are some universities which do not have well-defined and well-documented/communicated key performance indicators (KPIs) for both academic and non-academic staff. Since most of our universities are considered as teaching universities, special emphasis should be put on the teaching performance (for academic staff) which should be measured on the basis of students’ evaluation, peer observation, contribution to skill development of the students, teachers’ engagement in quality teaching-learning activities and contribution to socio-economic development. The top management of the universities needs to rethink and redefine the effective and relevant KPIs for the staff.

h) Research and Extension: The prime objective of higher education is to contribute to the sustainable development of the society as a whole. Research with national relevance truly helps form the basis of creativity and innovation which is the key to sustainable socio-economic growth of the country. But it is an undeniable fact that most of the private universities do not explore the possibilities of corporate funding through university-industry research collaboration. Here I would like to cite an article, titled “Building research universities,” written by BRAC University VC Prof Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb, published in the Daily Star on 29 October 2016. He says, “It is unlikely to be contested that most of our academic institutions are not capable or equipped to do good quality research. Expecting a wide spectrum of institutions to do research is thus not likely to be fruitful. It is, therefore, time to envisage building specialized universities with emphasis on research, supported by strong graduate programs (and driven by the nation’s priorities), if the Government’s desire for research is to be meaningfully driven. Selectivity is very important. As flagship institutions, the “Research Universities” can play a leading role in nation building.”

But the question is - - what type of university do we need to build? Do the authorities take any initiative to make a bridge between the universities and the industries for doing market-oriented or need-based research?

I would cite another article, titled “Training for teachers is key,” written by Prof Dr M. Rezwan Khan, Ex-VC of United International University, published in The Daily Star Special Issue on Private Universities and The Growth of Higher Education on 6 Nov. 2016. He says, “As far as research activities in a university are concerned, it is usually guided by the mission and vision of the university. A university may choose to develop research along with its undergraduate or graduate programmes by introducing PhD courses, or it may choose to remain as a teaching university without offering PhD. Staffing and physical facilities can be quite different for these two categories of universities. To develop research, introducing PhD course is very important for a university.”

i) Process Management & Continuous Improvement: The quality assurance system is focused on process output which refers to quality in education and achievement of objectives. Several interventions are required to ensure internal quality and continuous improvement. And the improvement plan includes faculty development, external evaluation, linking program with corporate world, adopting best practices, offering attractive pay packages to the faculty members, retaining the talented and dedicated teachers, and developing quality assurance culture in all spheres of academic and administrative management. The top management of the universities should be committed to developing QA culture and implementing the improvement plan through self-assessment process for ensuring quality higher education and establishing good governance in academic and administrative affairs.

I would like to conclude by saying that internationalization, employability and sustainability are the key elements in a university’s vision for the future. To attain the vision, universities should have extensive connections with universities and industries throughout the world. And to make the QA practices more effective, acceptable and focused, strong emphasis must be put on establishing good governance, strengthening institutional leadership and greater academic-administrative freedom in higher education institutions. However, proper accreditation requires much time to take root. The accreditation council, to be formed by the government, must maintain its independence, transparency and accountability to ensure quality education at both public and private universities. All the universities - - both public and private - - should come under a single independent Higher Education Commission (HEC), and the whole accreditation process must not be used as a tool to straitjacket the universal essence of the university. And we hope the universities will not be corporatised!

Sheikh Nahid Neazy, Associate Professor and Head of Self-Assessment Committee under IQAC, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh; Email: nahidneazy@yahoo.com

  • Education
  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Issue 8
  • A premium on quality
  • Sheikh Nahid Neazy

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