I was a young lecturer when private universities appeared for the first time in the higher education scene of Bangladesh. I remember when one of my colleagues left us to join a pioneer private university as a full time faculty, we at the department felt that he had sold his soul to money, deciding to work under a corporate system. The same thing happened when one of my teachers left for a financially lucrative BCS job.
Somehow in the public system, we "were" very conscious of the opportunity cost. We knew we had decidedly settled for low wages to enjoy the social prestige and intellectual freedom as members of the civil society. We knew it was our responsibility to educate the best minds for the future of the nation. We were inspired by one secret feeling (something that we ironically, albeit ideally, share with those in civil or military bureaucracy): the taxpayers had paid for making us who we are, and therefore as citizens we need to pay them back. We owe it to our country. Students paying for their education from their own or parents' sources may not feel the same.
My professor who joined the private system reportedly quadrupled the figure of his last public paycheck, which was 10 times more than what I was making as a lecturer. To be honest, my salary-scale was half of what I was making as an MA student with part-time jobs. Still I had no complaints, none of us had! We were happy to be among the intellectually stimulating cohorts who would force you to remain academically updated and socially committed. We looked up to some iconic professors and challenged ourselves to set the bar high.
As a young faculty member, I was full of idealism and enthusiasm. I was giving 12 to 16 lectures a week, volunteering for every assignment, events and activities. And as a result, I have many students who have become my lifelong friends. When you are in your mid-20s you can afford to be an idealist. Back then we were very suspicious of the privatisation of higher education thinking of it as a sorority and fraternity house for rich kids. That for me changed one day during an inter-university competition organised by a club to which I was a faculty adviser. The captain of a participating private university team (he is now a media celebrity) said something really witty: "the private universities are the real representatives of higher education. Look how high our buildings are." Everyone laughed, and I thought, this guy was alright; the team was alright. It takes only a nudge in the right direction to change one's attitude.
I left for the US on a Fulbright scholarship soon afterwards. After finishing my MA, I even had a chance to go into a full-funded PhD programme. By then the result of my wife's BCS exam came out. She got selected for the foreign service, and returned from the US to join her training. With my daughter just a year old, I decided to resume my teaching post at Jahangirnagar University deferring my doctoral pursuits. I started receiving calls from my senior colleagues who by then were holding various top positions in private universities .
I started teaching courses in the afternoon or the weekend with proper permission from my parent university. The supplementary income was becoming essential in a country that had just adopted an open market economy.
The demography of the private universities was changing too. It was no longer a space for those who did not make it to the public system. Many students started opting for the private system because of its rigid academic calendar. Many middle-class and lower-middle-class parents saw it as a good alternative as graduates of the private universities were entering the job market almost two years ahead of their public counterparts.
I left for the UK for my PhD, and by the time I returned the private system was thriving. In contrast, the public system seemed jaded. It did not have the intellectual climate that it used to have up to the 90s. The cosmetic conversion of colleges into universities, politically motivated appointments, adherence to old curricula, exodus and retirements of experienced teachers, lack of accountability and hunger for political power had changed the public education landscape. The quality declined, the quantity increased, while the ego, however, remained intact. Meanwhile, the private system benefitted from the recruitment of experienced retired teachers. The relatively better pay structures of the top private universities attracted teachers with overseas exposures. These universities adopted a flexible policy to update its curricula, while focusing on networking and entrepreneurial attitudes.
I took leave from Dhaka University and joined as pro-vice chancellor of a university that models after the North American liberal arts system. Even though my decision to join a "lesser university" was frowned upon, I must say that I found freedom and resources to do things that I could not do at the public universities I taught. The international conferences and events that we have done, the publications that we have produced, the resources and faculty portfolios that we have built are enviable in a Bangladeshi context. I am very proud of the English department which I have been a part of. In the public system, my hands were tied to bureaucracy, partisanship, power politics, and groupings. I felt sorry for my students who came to the University of Dhaka with stellar results and potential, but were not given the scope to grow. Large classrooms, teacher-centred learning, and lack of commitments were the main evils. My decision to take a break from the university to see what change I could bring to the system had paid off.
The reason I am sharing my personal experience of the public and private system is to help you understand a fault-line; a tremor is in the making. The public and the private students are being pitted against one another. At the advent of the worldwide pandemic, most private universities switched to online teaching to ensure the continuity of education of their students. The reservation against it was made clear by some of the top officials of the University Grants Commission (UGC). Once all educational institutions were shut down, UGC allowed the private universities to continue with online teaching. Then they backtracked by saying that exams should not be held online. It's like the famous fallacy of having a pound of flesh without a drop of blood. And some immediately sensed fish in the murky water.
One official told the media, if DU, Buet, JU could afford not to have online classes, then why the private universities should be so keen. The guardian thus revealed who his favourite child was! The profit motif of the university board of trustees was hinted. Maybe it's true for some rotten apples, and there are plenty of them. For instance, the ones who started slashing the salary of faculty and staff at the first sight of the virus. Financial regularities of the private universities again should have been strictly monitored by UGC to protect the institutions from emergency situations like the one we are experiencing. It does not make sense for a university to stop paying in the middle of a semester for which the students have already paid. At my university, I know for a fact how hard my colleagues worked during the last two months to make sure that the migration from face-to-face teaching to online one remained seamless. They are adopting new tools, gadgets and applications to overcome the hiccups they had due to the sudden transition in the Spring Semester.
Online teaching is a culture that needs to be cultured. In order to create a learning environment, it requires empowerment of both students and faculty members. The mixed signal given by the UGC simply damaged the confidence of the students in us. The financial insecurities of the students during this pandemic have already made everyone very edgy, and the irresponsible comments and behaviours of some of the BoTs as well as UGC rocked the boat.
As the guardian of both public and private universities, one hopes that UGC would think big and help us build the teaching capacities of all institutions. It needs to bring in all stakeholders of the digital system to ensure that the country acquires a contingency plan for any future crisis. Instead of giving pep-talk on the fourth industrial revolution, UGC should equip its affiliated institutions to prepare for the 21st century. This "us-and-them" divide is rather unfortunate, especially for those who want to see the improvement of the national educational scene.
The UGC must act as a catalyst to create bonds between the public and private institutions. My university has been using a learning management software (LMS) for the last five years. Instead of dismissing or doubting our online initiatives, UGC can invite us to share our knowledge with those who do not have the capacity. If students do not have devices or network accessibility, UGC can bring in MNCs, donors, banks, and philanthropic organisations to offer financial schemes, soft loans or to arrange special internet data packages for students.
Thankfully, with the intervention of the education ministry, UGC had finally come up with a clear guidance on examination and admission for private universities. The private universities are taking baby steps to attain online teaching capability. Their experiences can be used to upscale and update the learning environment of all universities. It will be suicidal to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.