Public universities need to consider potentials for reform

Published : 31 Dec 2020 08:06 PM | Updated : 01 Jan 2021 01:23 AM

For the past few months the media have been replete with reports of mis-governance in public universities. They have focused on protests against abuse of authority, financial indiscipline, partisanship, politicization and absence of a truly academic atmosphere. These revelations have been shocking and prompted many within the civil society to stress on the need for our relevant authorities to carry out in-depth surveys about administrative discipline in different Public Universities.

In our societal structure, teachers, be it at the primary, secondary, college or university level, have a special place. They are admired and held with respect. As in other countries this profession is described as noble and one that is supposed to inspire trust and create confidence in the hearts and minds of both students and their guardians.

I still remember my Metaphysics classes in Dhaka University with the late Professor G.C. Dev fifty-four years ago. I recall how he helped to instill in the minds of his students the need to be humane in their treatment of others and how to give importance to views that differed from one's own. I similarly remember with gratitude, the kindness and firmness with which important areas of our lives were addressed, and our queries answered in the tutorial classes supervised by late Professor Dr. J. Guhathakurta and late Professor K.S. Morshed. These teachers and many other educationists helped to open windows of our imagination and taught us to appreciate values. They were the standard bearers who outlined moral thresholds.

I now turn to the painful situation that exists in most of our public universities today. I have always followed the state of affairs in public universities with great interest. I was fortunate in being a teacher myself, in one of the public universities, nearly fifty-four years ago. Consequently, it has been that much more disturbing to read about what has been happening currently in some of these public institutions.

Charges are being alleged against several senior university faculty members and vice-chancellors of some institutions. These include a broad range of supposed irregularities - questionable appointments of teachers and staff, drawing huge amounts against mobile phone bills, misuse of authority and unacceptable expenditure with regard to furniture and furnishings. The persons concerned have supposedly been aided and abetted by a small number of university officials.

Reports have emerged that some of these universities have been turned into personal fiefdoms, where rules of audit and accountability have been banished. The University Grants Commission is apparently studying the problem carefully but is facing problems in finding educationists willing to take over as vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and treasurers in certain public universities.

Apparently, the cloud hanging over some of the public academic institutions and the controversies generated there have persuaded educationists from Dhaka University, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and the Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology to turn down offers of appointment. This is indeed very serious, given the fact that we have nearly 30 public universities in Bangladesh and that many of them need the stern hands of reform.

However, teachers-cum-administrators living up to expectations are not the only problem in public universities. There are also other factors that are affecting the level of education, opportunities for education and the quality of education imparted in these educational institutions.

I will touch on some of them. The current sorry state of affairs has emerged because of many reasons. It has infected even institutions like the Dhaka University - the oldest among the public universities in Bangladesh. The Rajshahi University and the Chittagong University are also no exceptions. Meritocracy has been sacrificed in many cases to promote expediency. Administrative irregularities take place sometimes on non-academic considerations. Rules are followed more by neglect than by observance.

Partisanship in the selection of teachers, allotment of residential accommodation, approval of educational opportunities to continue further studies abroad, the process of granting leave (either to teach in private universities on higher pay or in the carrying out of consultancies) and failure to take the designated number of classes per week have all contributed to the weakening of the educational infrastructure. This has also affected accountability.

In addition, there is also the question of the continuous upgrading and being up to date among the teaching community. Unfortunately, incremental improvement appears to have receded to the background.

Professionalism requires that teachers carry out original research and publish their findings in well-known and recognized journals. This trend appears to have declined. In some public universities, it is negligible and of inferior quality.

One way to enhance the importance of original research (not on the basis of cut and paste) might be to link publications (subject to scrutiny by the Academic Council) with promotion for teachers. It would also be pertinent to note here about the extremely poor quality of the libraries of these institutions. Books and manuscripts are poorly maintained and rarely updated. Important professional journals published by different foreign institutions, which used to be available forty years ago, are not there anymore.

I went the other day to see if I could obtain details on certain Conventions pertaining to international law. There was a vacant stare in the eyes of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining records in the Dhaka University Library. Someone tried to salvage the situation by remarking that hard copies of legal magazines were no longer maintained because they were expensive and that I should try to download them from different web pages.

I thought there was some merit in this argument. So I asked if there were adequate computers with necessary connections for this purpose in the library for the use of students. I was informed that this was unfortunately not always available due to resource constraint. This was sad. It also underlined the need for capacity building (more computers and online facilities in each department of the university) and greater resource generation.

It is pertinent to remember that the Dhaka University Order, 1973 was originally framed consistent with the principles of Fabian socialism and based on a set of values that today is probably misused rather than observed in the spirit meant to be.

Some student politicians are taking their area of influence one step further with the connivance of some of those associated with the university administration. I am referring here to reports of influencing admission, allotment of seats in residential halls and participation in tenders for procurement of necessary supplies for the university. It is now commonly alleged that the required transparency is mostly absent in decision-making and corruption has replaced accountability.

I feel that time has come to undertake a positive and constructive engagement within the ambit of public universities. Those responsible within the matrix of the public universities need to set up, with the aid of the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Education, a Commission in each public university to determine the existing flaws and deficiencies and then chart out measures on how to remove them. The Commission could be autonomous and constituted of educationists (including retired professors) respected for their commitment, wisdom and neutrality. The Commission could be given the mandate to complete their investigations within 90 days. This could include hearings, held in public, to ensure transparency. Both students and guardians, in addition to teachers, could participate in this identification process.

This process could subsequently come up with suitable recommendations with regard to the syllabus, teacher's training, criteria for promotion of teachers and a better uniform grading system. This commission could direct itself towards the difficult question of raising monthly tutorial fees to an acceptable level (if necessary, to at least 10 percent of private universities).

Right now, it costs more to collect the fees than what a university gets as fees. We have to remember in this regard that public universities and higher education, in this day and age, are not meant to be almost free. We cannot afford such subsidies.

The deterioration in our universities can and must be stemmed. What we require is the right will and better coordination between the Academic Council, the Senate and the Syndicate. It also needs making vice-chancellors of both public and private universities more responsible and accountable for their actions and decisions to the University Grants Commission and Accreditation Council in a meaningful manner.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow, Bangla Academy, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.