TRANSPARENCY International Bangladesh's (TIB) June 30 report on alleged irregularities and corruption in the private universities has evidently landed this anti-graft watchdog in a very unpleasant situation. The education minister's reaction to the TIB disclosure has not been limited simply to the report being dismissed by him. He has gone so far as to demand that TIB withdraw its report, or even ask apology for it. Such reaction from the education minister, or from the government, for that matter, is unnecessary and uncalled-for.
But what was so upsetting about the TIB report? Under title "Private Universities: Challenges of Good Governance and Way out," the report at first dwelt at length on the legal reform and other government initiatives taken so far towards establishing good government in private universities, for example, framing of the Private University Act 2010. It then went on to highlight the commendable achievements made so far by private universities. So, the very context of the reported instances of irregularities and corruption in the private universities under study was constructive and not meant to undermine anyone.
Why has the government to be on a collision course with an organisation engaged in monitoring and publishing research on corporate and political corruption and whose valuable work has been helping the public to have a better insight into how far the criteria of good governance are being met globally in various government, non-government and private organisations? It goes without saying that prevalence of corruption is a vital information indicating lack of good governance in an organisation. The private universities as well as the government may well use this information to improve the situation in this sector of higher education. But far from accepting it in that spirit, the government appears to have been rather upset by the revelations made in the report.
As noted in the foregoing, the TIB report is not against private universities as such. On the contrary, the fact that the research has been largely diagnostic in its approach with suggestions to improve situations in the 22 universities covered by the study should leave no doubt about the questioned 'motive' of the report.
It may be recalled that in the past, the government itself had critically examined private universities so far as their qualities with respect to physical facilities, environment, teaching staff strength and so on were concerned. But those efforts were not corruption-focused like the one by the TIB now under review.
If the government is really serious about combating corruption in both public and private sectors, make those answerable to appropriate authorities, and thereby establish good governance in them, shouldn't it rather commend bodies like TIB for their efforts? Is it not then strange that far from doing that the government has come down so heavily on TIB? What is still stranger in this case is that the TIB this time has drawn the administration's wrath not for exposing a government body, but some institutions in the private sector. Perhaps, the report wouldn't have irked the government at all had it not mentioned the involvement of the education ministry or the University Grants Commission (UGC) in the affairs of those universities.
The TIB, for understandable reasons, has not caved in in the face of the government pressure. It has rather insisted that its findings on corruption and irregularities in the private universities under scrutiny are supported by evidence.
Things should not have come to such a pass. We believe we are an open, not a closed, society and that the incumbent government also believes it to be so. It can be assumed that the government also believes in the free flow of information, the hallmark of an open, pluralistic and democratic system of government, as opposed to a dictatorial one. Shouldn't such a government, even if it thinks it has reasons to take any critical report about itself, or any other organisation, with a grain of salt, accept it with good grace and then conduct an investigation into it in order to reach its own conclusion on the issue under the spotlight? It is only through this process that it can accept or refute the report in question.
So, why should the question of 'embarrassment' at all arise, as the Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid has resented on the floor of Jatiya Sangsad? If the said report that some of the private universities have become commercial ventures or that alleged illicit transactions of money have become rampant, from getting approval for establishing a university to recruiting teachers, to appointing vice chancellor, pro-vice chancellor, or treasurer, to issuing certificates to students in exchange for money and so and so forth, then it should have actually 'embarrassed' the people involved in the corrupt practices and not the education minister. This is simply bizarre.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.