A timely decision on higher education

Photo: Prabir Das

Finally, a breath of fresh air—winds blowing through the higher stratosphere are causing some thought clouds to loosen up and shower good news on higher education. Public universities have been asked to introduce uniform admission tests and to stop weekend courses. They have also been asked to accommodate international students. This is a clarion call for universities to wake up to lived realities and shape up to be at par with international standards.

At a convocation ceremony in December, the chancellor of a university launched a scathing attack on certain university teachers for abusing the existing system to mint money by offering evening or weekend courses. Soon afterwards, the University Grants Commission (UGC) sent a 13-point directive to all public universities asking them to stop weekend courses, as well as to maintain financial transparency. The Prime Minister too has expressed her dissatisfaction over the monetary obsession of some university teachers. She, however, upheld the autonomy of the universities by mentioning that the UGC and universities should deal with the issue and there was no need for the parliament to intervene. Her soft signal was a hint for those reviewing the UGC decision. University of Dhaka (DU) has already suspended its weekend programmes; others are likely to follow.

This may not come as good news for many of my colleagues who have some legitimate arguments in favour of the weekend or evening courses. After all, this system has given them some financial flexibility to do things that were previously unheard of. An attempt by the English Department at DU to introduce such courses, however, was foiled by agitating students. The students felt that there would be discrimination as teachers might prefer higher paying students. Education would become a commodity, and the meritocracy would be compromised. I joined the department in 2011. By then, the storm was over, but an uneasy calm still persisted, affecting the teacher-student relationship. My previous department at Jahangirnagar by then had started weekend programmes, and I started hearing stories of some of my colleagues teaching as many as nine courses over the weekends. The department that I chaired reportedly became like private universities, both in outlook and orientation. Even at DU, the departments that opted for parallel programmes started showing signs of material growth—air-conditioned class rooms, well-furnished office rooms, conference rooms, well equipped libraries or workstations. Many of the departments could finally afford to procure some decent furniture, acquire bare minimum facilities or buy basic logistical equipment such as a photo-copier machine, thanks largely to the extra revenue made through this parallel system. At the same time, it stopped many teachers from "moonlighting", as they could be generously compensated for their weekend engagements in their own departments. This turned out to be a win-win situation for those teachers who did not want to teach outside and those students who did not previously get a chance to study at prestigious public universities. Currently, there are 7,000 regular Master's students across DU, and the number is matched across the 12 degrees offering evening MA programmes. The tuition fee for regular students per semester is BDT 500, while during the weekend, it is almost ten-fold.

As a concept, especially in a country where opportunities are scarce, weekend courses sound logical. The problem arises when greed sets in and makes education a product to profit from. It creates disparity among teachers and departments, and discourages them from engaging in research or publications. 

University admission tests are the other instance where teachers have been accused of abusing the system for their own financial gain. A decision to implement an integrated university admission test has been stalled for over a decade. The UGC annual report 2016, for instance, termed the existing admission system as questionable and expensive. A study done by the UGC in 2013 found that an admission-seeker on average was spending BDT 43,100 on coaching and other related expenditures, including travel. One can only assume that by now, the cost has doubled. University teachers earned bad press for their supposed involvement in resisting the uniform test. For their invigilation during the admission season, teachers in certain universities receive more than BDT one lakh. And the prolonged exam schedule often makes candidates miss out on tests at other universities.

The 45 functional public universities that currently exist can offer a total of 4,65,675 seats (2018 estimate). Using last year's number of 13.5 lakh HSC candidates as our benchmark, it can be ascertained that almost half the successful candidates will not find a place in the state subsidised education system. Their options will be to either get admitted in the private universities or to go abroad. Not all public universities have come of age or have the same prestige factors. Students are more likely to consider better institutions or disciplines, or proximity to their hometowns in prioritising their choices. A unified test will at least give everyone a fair chance.

Vice chancellors of almost all universities met last week and decided on the standardised test. Some big players however, mentioned that their formal bodies would take the ultimate decision. In all probability, we are going to have a uniform test from this year. The challenge for the proposed admission process is to maintain fairness, diversity and professionalism in selecting candidates who have the necessary skills and knowledge for higher education. Given the novelty of the system, sample test papers should be made available in advance so that the time spent by test-takers in preparing for the tests help them develop skills directly beneficial for their future academic studies. Meanwhile, engineering universities can follow the unified model of the medical colleges.

For general subjects that rely on critical and analytical abilities and creative expressions, admission tests must provide a snapshot of a student's ability at the time of their application to university study. The knowledge and skills that are being tested must be familiar to applicants. Often, questions are made more difficult, considering elimination as the only criteria. The difficulty level of questions should be at par with what students have studied at the HSC level. And there should be enough statistical analyses to monitor the performance of different test-taking groups (e.g. gender, school background) to protect them against any possible bias. More importantly, a reward system for the performances in public examinations need to be taken into account.

A note of caution though; not all public universities are equal. Students need to be given enough information on the ranking of the participating universities in the uniform admission test so that they can make an informed decision. A university with a specialised degree programme such as speech therapy or theatre may require additional admission orientation or criteria (e.g. viva or practical). Can the admission system isolate departments with special needs? How does one address the student bias towards metropolitan cities? How about separating the technical universities from the general ones? One solution can be to have a cluster of tests instead of one uniform test. All "general" universities can have one test, with the engineering ones having a test of their own.

The other worry is, given the HSC exams start in April, there is not enough response time. Ideally, the proposed admission test should be piloted before implementation. Experimenting with the future of hundreds of thousands of students is not a good idea. Then there is this nagging fear of question leakage, which may suck the air out of any bubble of success.

The good thing is, the government and UGC are taking higher education seriously. They do not want its quality to be compromised. The renewed focus on regular academic activities, while suspending  the diversion of energies from the weekend programmes, is a commendable initiative. The attempt to stop inhumane shuttling of admission-seekers from one corner of the country to another in search of a seat that benefitted mostly a section of teachers is equally laudable. With the proposed changes, the universities will be pitted against each other and there will be healthy competition to excel and attract better candidates. The other move to encourage international students will further challenge the universities to improve their infrastructure, update their curricula, increase their faculty portfolios, and yield research with recognisable impacts.

Our universities played a crucial role in the birth of the country. With the right impetus and strategies, universities can once again help us leap into the future, shaking off whatever mid-life crisis that we are having at fifty!


Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: [email protected]


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