TERTIARY education has faced a crisis all over the world since the 1960s. As one war ended another began. Education provided the royal road to social mobility for many in the former colonial world, especially among the middle classes. Demand for tertiary education intensified as social expectations steeply rose. By that time, economic growth began to stagnate. This widening gap between the number of job-seeking educated young people and the effective demand for their skills caused a crisis in education on a world scale.
After liberation, Bangladesh had only a handful of public universities. Since the turn of the century, both public and private universities have proliferated. Growth, i.e. access is in itself a good thing. Equity, or filtering down, is however quite another. Growth in itself will not take care of equity. Education does not filter down. If it did, in 1947, after a hundred years of filtering down, literacy rate in the country would not remain stuck at 6% of the population.
How are our universities doing now?
Bangladeshi universities have, as many commentators put it, been virtually in freefall insofar as international rankings are concerned. If those rankings, for all their bias, are any indicator of standards in higher education we have reasons for concern. A daily cites this state of affairs as added proof that official claims of unprecedented improvement of education is a myth.
According to a set of guiding rules available in draft to us, proposed by the University Grants Commission and now awaiting further consideration of the government, foreign universities, their branches, and even coaching centres (or “tuition providing/study/teaching/coaching centres” as the UGC has it) are going to be permitted to operate in Bangladesh. Nothing could be more welcome to all those interested in the expansion of efficiency of tertiary education in the country than the promotion of a spirit of honourable rivalry with foreign universities.
The new policy, it is claimed, would help local students to have an education of global standards. Will it, really? It is one thing in principle. In practice, it may be quite another. There is no conflict, the University Grants Commission seems to think, between provisions of the Private Universities Act, 2010 and the draft guiding rules for foreign universities. A closer view, however, may reveal a good deal of papering over the cracks. They relate to both, questions of fairness or equity and of standards.
A glaring inconsistency is the provision relating to allowing 'study centres' on an equal footing with other universities, public and private, domestic and foreign. For instance, these study centres are permitted to confer university degrees on a par with other universities. It is an unwelcome deviation from the common rule that standard for university degrees needs to be uniform throughout the nation, isn't it?
The Private Universities Act, 2010 does not permit any university in the country to operate, even provisionally, unless it has at least three faculties and six departments in place. The coaching centres run in the name of foreign universities, as the proposed rules provide, will be permitted to conduct a complete programme or just a part of a programme. Accordingly, they will be permitted to open shop on a floor space of three thousand square feet, or of another size, depending on expansion of programmes or the student body. Requirements in question for domestic private universities provide for no less than twenty-five thousand square feet.
Another highly inequitable point shows up in the provision relating to the structure of registration fees and reserves funds. The registration fee for coaching centres is stipulated at Tk.300,000, whereas the comparable fee for a foreign university or for a branch will be Tk.2,500,000 and Tk.1,000,000, respectively.
Likewise, as per reports published in a national daily, the reserve fund on deposit required is Tk.10,000,000 for a coaching centre, whereas its counterpart for a branch or 'campus,' is Tk.30,000,000. The sum is Tk.50,000,000 for a foreign university set up as joint-venture with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and, finally, for a full-fledged foreign university the figure will be a fulsome one of Tk.70,000,000. It is also noted, incidentally, that such figures of registration fees and reserve funds remain subject to further determination by the Universities Grants Commission.
As a third provision has it, foreign universities or their branches or coaching centres are permitted to repatriate their profits, subject of course to the permission of the chancellor. It amounts to permitting withdrawal of profits. Education is also a commodity. One wonders about ethics of equal treatment of all capitals, domestic and foreign, all the same. Is it not like sailing the boat of free competition on an uneven keel?
The draft rules first circulated in 2011 provided, believe it or not, that it would suffice for a coaching centre to maintain a library with no less than 1,000 titles and one would still treat it like a university. This in itself is a telltale comment on the question of standards. It raises further questions.
According to a recent report published in Dhaka newspapers, not a single university from Bangladesh has ranked even in the top 500 of the academic ranking of the world universities. Can the new guidelines to elevate coaching centres help put a break here? What can such a sustained slide in the standards of tertiary education spell but sustained disaster for the nation?
It is certainly not enough for a government to say that it can do no more than direct the efforts of the people, and help them wherever they appear to require most assistance. If the object of the government is to extend education throughout all classes of the people without sacrificing standards of higher education, it cannot afford to indulge in universal abandon. Without uniformity and fairness in competition it is next to impossible to achieve a sustainable level of efficiency or standard.
Education is a demand not of the middle classes alone, but of the whole nation. The state is the last resort in this business. One expects the state to stand by the people. It appears that the state is tilting towards certain special interests, which may unfortunately also mean dashing of the people's desire for standard tertiary education.
The writer is Professor, Department of General Education, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.