The recent case of suicide of Taifur Rahman Pratik, a student of Genetics Engineering and Biotechnology Department at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST), because of the alleged injustices done to him by his teachers, should be a wake-up call for the public universities where, according to several research studies, anomalies and irregularities in the recruitment process are rampant. Shanta Tawhida, Pratik's sister, a teacher of Dhaka University, termed his death as “murder”. On her Facebook page, she wrote the names of some teachers of Pratik's department who she alleged were responsible for her brother's death.
According to his sister, although Pratik came first class first in his honours examinations, certain teachers of his department were not happy about him applying for the position of lecturer at the department. She alleged that Pratik's teachers gave him lower marks in his master's courses and did not approve a supervisor for his thesis. Upset with his teachers' non-cooperation, Pratik gave up hope of being a teacher and was planning to study abroad. But the extent of hostility of his teachers towards him was so high that they even denied to give him the “letter of reference” that he needed to apply to a foreign university.
A probe committee has been formed to investigate the suicide, and we can only hope that the reasons for his suicide would be unearthed soon. Police's primary investigation has found that Pratik died by suicide due to “long-term frustration”. While finding out the reasons for his death is the responsibility of the police, it is also the responsibility of his university to find out what factors contributed to his frustrations which eventually led to his suicide.
As the investigation is ongoing, we cannot jump to conclusions as to why Pratik ended up taking his own life. But so far, whatever information Pratik's sister has come forward with tells us that Pratik might have been unable to cope with how helpless he became in the face of animosity and lack of support from his teachers. This is not the first time that teachers and people in positions of authority in our educational institutions have been pointed out and blamed after a student's suicide. And in this particular case, if the teachers' non-cooperation and unwillingness to help Pratik with his academic plans are really to blame, then we need to look at the very recruitment process that gives such kinds of teachers—who are biased and unfair in their treatment of students—a place in our public universities.
There has been an alarming rise in the incidents of students' suicide in public universities in recent years. In a report published in this daily on January 16, 2019, 19 students from five public universities died by suicide last year. While as many as 13 DU students died by suicide between 2005 and 2016, the same number of students committed suicide only in two years' time during 2017-18.
In such a situation, most public universities have set up mental healthcare cells to deal with issues related to students' mental wellbeing, although the effectiveness of these cells is not beyond question. However, several issues such as misuse of power by some teachers (e.g. treating students unfairly) and other corrupt practices such as teachers influencing the academic results of their favourite students by giving them good grades, and corruption in the recruitment of lecturers, among other things, that affect a student's mental health significantly, have hardly been addressed by universities.
This is why the fate of students, including those like Pratik who want to join a university as a lecturer, depends on their relationships with teachers wielding power in our universities and their political leanings. This is an open secret in our public universities. Many incidents of unfair recruitment have been reported by newspapers where even money was involved.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), in its report titled “Recruitment of Lecturers in Public Universities: Governance Challenges and Ways Forward,” released in 2016, found political leanings and nepotism to be two of the dominant factors in the recruitment process at the 13 public universities they surveyed, while regionalism and religious identity play a major role in appointment of lecturers in many of these institutions. It said that adherence or inclination to the ideology of the ruling political party has always acted as an important factor in the recruitment of lecturers.
The report also found that there are no comprehensive rules for recruiting lecturers at the universities surveyed and that irregularities in the recruitment of lecturers often start from the academic stage. There have been instances where teachers manipulated or influenced academic results of some preferred students and subsequently helped their recruitment, the report found.
American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS), another research organisation funded by the US state and education departments, also found nepotism, political affiliation and money to be the defining factors in the recruitment of teachers and administrators (The Daily Star, January 14, 2016).
The fact is that many of the existing irregularities in the recruitment process of teachers can be curbed by formulating uniform guidelines for recruitment. Currently, candidates only have to sit for a viva voce to be recruited as a public university teacher. The government has recommended public university authorities to take a written test along with viva voce for the appointment of teachers but only a few universities have adopted this recommendation. And although teaching capabilities should be one of the most important parts that a job interview should assess, this is not included in the recruitment process in most of our public universities. Formulating uniform guidelines for recruitment is a policy decision that the public university authorities must take to ensure a healthy educational environment in campuses.
Going by news reports and allegations brought before the media by his family, it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Pratik was perhaps a victim of the unhealthy power relations that exist between teachers and students in the majority of our public universities and also a victim of the corruption that takes place in the recruitment process in the absence of any uniform guidelines.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.