North South University Scams: When trust takes a back seat
Thirty years ago, the university was established as a non-profit with the vision to become a centre of excellence in higher education. But some of the trustees allegedly used the North South University to make a quick buck, tarnishing the image of one of the country's best seats of learning.
Misusing power, they allegedly raised their sitting allowance to up to 10 times the approved rate, and got themselves luxury cars at the expense of the students.
They had been facing these allegations for the past several years, but faced no action until the Anti-Corruption Commission sued them over land scams recently.
So far, five NSU trustees and a managing director of a developer company have been accused of misappropriation of about Tk 304 crore.
"The number of accused may increase," said ACC Deputy Director Farid Ahmed Patwary, who filed the case on May 5.
NSU, the first private university in Bangladesh, was established in 1992 as a charitable, non-profit, non-commercial and non-political organisation. It has about 24,600 students now, according to its website.
Its campus is located in the capital's Bashundhara.
THE LAND SCAM
The ACC sued five members of the NSU board of trustees -- Azim Uddin Ahmed, Mohammed Shajahan, Benajir Ahmed, MA Kashem and Rehana Rahman -- and Ashalaya Housing Managing Director Amin Md Hilaly over laundering of about Tk 304 crore. All the five trustees are businesspeople.
Shajahan, Benajir, Kashem and Rehana had sought anticipatory bail from the High Court, but the court sent them to jail on May 22.
A Dhaka court on June 30 also rejected bail pleas of the four.
Patwary, the ACC DD who is investigating the case, interrogated the four suspects at jail gate in late May.
"They've given us some important information that will help prove the case," he said, without going into details.
"Azim Uddin and Hilaly are in hiding," Patwary said last month.
The HC issued a travel ban so they cannot leave the country, he added.
Barrister Mizan Sayeed, who represented the four trustees at the High Court for the bail hearing, said the allegations against his clients were untrue and fabricated.
"They are victims of a conspiracy by a vested quarter," he said, but did not elaborate.
Investigators said they unearthed a nexus between Hilaly and some members of the trustee board.
"Without the consent of the university [NSU] syndicate, University Grants Commission and the education ministry, the board of trustees illegally paid an additional Tk 303.82 crore for the development of the campus on the 9,096.88 decimals of land," reads the case document.
The NSU and the developer company struck a primary deal on July 27, 2014, for buying land in Jangir, Gutiab and Pitalganj mouzas of Rupganj upazila of Narayanganj for campus development.
On the same day, Hilaly deposited Tk 9 crore into 13 separate FDR accounts of Benajir Ahmed in the same branch of a private bank.
Within 10 days, another Tk 11 crore was deposited in Benajir's FDR accounts. During April-August of 2016, his FDR accounts swelled by another TK 8 crore, taking his total receipts from the developer before and after the land purchase to Tk 28 crore, investigators said.
Hilaly similarly gave Tk 29.5 crore to Hashem, Tk 14 crore to Azim, Tk 9 crore to MA Kashem and Tk 11 crore to Rehana in bribes, according to the case statement.
Twenty-one months after the primary deal, the developer sold about 8,250 decimals of land in the Rupganj mouzas on April 19, 2016. The NSU paid Tk 500 crore through pay orders and cheques before and after the land registration.
Between 2019 and 2021, the NSU bought another 846.88 decimals of land at Tk 35.19 crore from the developer company.
The ACC considered the price of adjacent land in the same mouza that were sold to others as the standard price, and found that the NSU paid an additional Tk 303.82 crore, reads the case statement.
Talking to The Daily Star yesterday, Rafiqul Islam Hilaly, brother of accused Amin Md Hilaly, said "unidentified men" picked his brother up on Friday and recorded his statement about the case after taking his signature and fingerprints.
Rafiqul, a director of Ashalaya Housing and Development, claimed his brother was found blindfolded on Sunday in Hemayetpur, Savar.
Asked about his brother's involvement with the alleged bribery, he said "I can't say clearly about it. But from what I know, in such cases, there is involvement of a middleman who brings clients. The middleman is given commission."
Before the ACC sued them, two separate investigations by the University Grants Commission in 2016 and 2019 found alleged misappropriation of money by some trustees.
NSU Vice-Chancellor Prof Atiqul Islam declined to comment on the alleged misappropriation, saying, "The matter is under trial. We want the law to take its own course."
At least two UGC members confirmed to The Daily Star that their investigations in 2016 and 2019 found that NSU bought the land at prices much higher than the market rate.
One of the members said they found the NSU board of trustees pocketed more than Tk 300 crore.
Aziz Al Kaiser Tito, a businessperson who joined the NSU trustee board last year, declined to comment on the alleged corruption that he said took place about 10 years ago.
But he said it was a custom around the world that trustees are paid handsome allowances for attending meetings, which in NSU's case sometimes run for four to five hours.
The accused trustees have also illegally taken large amounts of money in sitting allowance through attending various committee meetings, and enrolling students for unapproved courses, the UGC probes found.
One UGC member involved in both the UGC probes said many NSU trustees took Tk 50,000 to 1 lakh each for attending a single committee meeting.
A syndicate member can get a maximum of Tk 10,000 for attending any meeting and that is also applicable for board of trustee members, said a senior UGC official.
The Private University Act allows a university to have nine committees on different matters. But the UGC found NSU had more than 20. Many of these committees were unnecessary and were formed simply to fatten the bank accounts of the trustees by giving them a high amount of sitting allowance, the UGC found.
Asked, NSU VC Atiqul said, "The board fixes the sitting allowance from time to time. It is a matter for the board."
When pointed out that he too sits on the board, he said, "I am an ex-officio member and I don't fix this [sitting allowance] on my own."
Education ministry sources said NSU purchased 10 luxury cars -- eight Range Rovers, one Mercedes Benz and one Toyota Prado -- for several trustees.
The cars were bought from January 2019 to January 2022 for Tk 26.95 crore, with each costing between Tk 1.1 crore and Tk 2.9 crore.
According to the Private University Act, private universities must have a general fund meant to be spent only on research and education development. But NSU spent the money on matters unrelated to education and research, said a secondary and higher education division order on May 17.
The same order asked the NSU authorities to sell cars through an open tender and deposit that money in the general fund for spending in educational development and research.
"We have taken an initiative to sell the cars. We will do it in a very transparent way, so that we get the best price. I will make sure of that," the NSU VC said.
The UGC investigations also found that the NSU has been running several BBA programmes without UGC's approval for at least 10 years.
NSU has approval for running Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), but it has been running General BBA, as well as BBA in Finance, Human Resource Management, International Business, Marketing, Management, Management Information System, Accounting, Economics, Entrepreneurship and Supply Chain Management.
One UGC investigator said NSU was allowed to enrol 50 students in approved BBA programmes, but in one semester it enrolled about 2,700 students.
UGC member Prof Biswajit Chanda said they marked NSU in the "red category" for running unapproved courses.
Prof Atiqul claimed all courses had the necessary approval. "The process to renew the approval is underway and is at the advanced stage."
He said NSU got approval of the BBA programme and course structures, and the contents for 10 major courses under that programme are also approved.
He said the university applied for separate programmes for all BBA courses in March 2021.
"The NSU is in the official process, and once they complete the process properly, we will take out the red mark," Prof Biswajit said.
At least two UGC members said only a few trustees were involved in these irregularities which have tarnished NSU's image.
"This is a violation of the Private University Act 2010 and Trusts Act 1882. The money you earn from students is for the educational development of the university. You cannot spend it on foreign trips, luxury cars, and sitting allowance, or buy property or have fixed deposits," UGC member Prof Abu Taher said.
Contacted, Secondary and Higher Education Division Secretary Abu Bakr Siddique told The Daily Star, "The highest authority of the government is aware of it. The University Grants Commission is working on it. We are also working on it."