Was it the right decision?
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has circulated a directive to public universities recently to close all evening degree programmes. It is a populist move, made without consultation with stakeholders.
As Bangladesh experienced accelerating economic growth and a deepening integration with the world economy, demand for higher education and relevant skills increased many-fold over time. The mushrooming of private universities is a manifestation of this development. Private provision of higher education, however, proved to be far below standard for a variety of reasons. One key reason is that a private university is often de facto a family enterprise and is run to maximise family wealth. Public universities had human and physical capital and excess capacities. They also thus entered into this "market for higher education". We can condemn this term, but it is the reality. If public universities are pushed out of this market, private universities alone will serve this burgeoning demand. Do they have requisite capacities? The answer is no. The outcome is obvious. People who need higher education will end up buying certificates from many weakly-governed private universities. Or they will be denied an opportunity to acquire the relevant skills. Skills-gap in the job market will therefore widen.
The big question is whether this prevalence of evening graduate programmes harmed regular degree programmes of public universities. With a few exceptions, the answer is absolutely no. I can list many benefits of this emerging pattern. Firstly, a rising volume of cashflows helped many academic departments substantially develop their teaching-learning environment. An absence of it would seriously harm their capability to provide and maintain physical infrastructures that are needed for healthy classroom environment. I had the opportunity to design and implement an evening graduate programme for corporate accountants and tax practitioners.
As the founder director of the programme, I will briefly highlight a few financial attributes taken from the audited financial statements of the programme. In the first two years, the programme earned a gross cashflow of Tk 25.8 million. Of this amount, we transferred 30 percent to the central account of the university and another 5 percent to the Faculty Dean's Office for supporting central logistics and facilities. The remainder 65 percent is the net disposable cashflow. About a half of the net cashflow was spent for admission, teaching and learning. A central element of it was to engage external policymakers and researchers for the conduct of seminars and symposiums on taxation and public finance. Another 15 percent was spent for advertising and promotion and office supplies. About 17.5 percent was spent for programme administration in the form of salaries and honorariums. Payment for fixed assets and taxes accounted for 5 percent each. Miscellaneous items accounted for the remainder. A wide array of professionals including faculty members, senior tax administrators, chartered accountants and tax lawyers comprise the pool of teachers of the programme. It is thus evident that more than 50 percent of the net cashflows are earned by this cross-section of professionals who are at the heart of deepening university-industry linkages. A public university without the incremental cashflows will be forced to be inward-looking. It would never be able to offer efficient graduate programmes for meeting job market needs. In a competitive world, an option to offer quality higher education to corporate executives who are "on-the-job and willing to pay for it" is consistent with both equity and efficiency.
Secondly, a share of 30 percent of gross revenues has long provided lifeline to the central budgets of many public universities. Dhaka University is one example. This sharing of cashflows helped Dhaka University support many critical tasks including transfer to other departments and institutes for maintaining their infrastructure. Note that job market produces little demand for higher education in many fields of knowledge. Those disciplines are hugely underfunded in a public university. The transfer of 30 percent gives the university administration little spending flexibility.
Thirdly, public university teachers until 2015 lived on inadequate salaries and benefits. They used to travel to private universities for a minimum living with humility and uncertainty. They used to waste valuable time while travelling in clogged Dhaka city. Given that they have opportunities at home, many public university teachers refrain from outside engagements. They are more productive and devoted to their teaching and research at their own universities. An exception of a handful of greedy teachers does not render a systemic innovation invalid.
Fourthly, the populist claim that regular programmes have suffered because of this evening programme is generally invalid. For a few cases, this argument is possibly tenable. That doesn't invalidate this evolving pattern of higher education. For example, it is observed that some newly established public universities, or some newly established academic departments, quickly jumped into this evening provision of higher education. And they have done it without considering their human and physical capabilities. That is clearly bad. It is more a governance failure of the public universities. But the move to ban all evening degree programmes of public universities, and thus denying learning opportunities for those in the job market, is unwarranted.
It will harm the government's vision for skills development. It will further erode competitive edge of local graduates and workforce. Corporate dependence on foreign workers will further worsen when millions of unskilled youth enter into the crowded job market every year.
Fifthly, we must remember that public universities often provide better quality higher education in the evening, but at much lower costs than their private counterparts. Closing this window will surely produce huge welfare loss for society. Prospective students will pay more but for inferior education. More importantly, we must think of dwindling government spending on higher education. Government spending is hugely constrained in the face of stagnant tax revenue. A ballooning budget deficit every year is causing a surge in public debt. If we are really committed to improving higher education, the government must require public universities to look for fiscal independence. Dr Mohammed Farashuddin, Chairman of the Pay Commission, made this point in 2015. If the avenues for private cashflows are instead closed, public universities will be more dependent on government budget. With no prospect of this extra government spending, public provision of higher education will further decline and become substandard. This erratic public policy is deeply inconsistent with the goal of fiscal sustainability of public universities.
Finally, the provision of higher education free of cost to everyone in a developing country is neither efficient nor equitable. A careful survey will unequivocally show that a large majority of students of a public university come from middle-income or high-income families. They are the "children of the moneyed elite". Had they not been selected in public universities, their parents would invest for their children's higher education in private universities at home and abroad. The use of taxpayers' money to give everyone higher education free of cost is against equity. The resurgent rise of more than 100 private universities in Bangladesh is a clear manifestation.
We can demand for good governance of public universities. Is it not equitable to charge tuition fees upon the children of the "moneyed elite" and provide scholarships to poor but meritorious students? It will bring about fiscal sustainability. We can call for improving spending efficiency of public universities. We can call for building research capabilities and financing of innovative research in public universities. We can invest more in our human and physical capital. We can invest for increasing internationalisation of higher education. We can think of curtailing campus politics. That would be a good service for the society.
Dr Mizanur Rahman is professor of Accountancy and Public Policy, Dhaka University.
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