The last few weeks have been marked by a torrent of revelations about cases of corruption, irregularities and complete subservience to the establishment in the country’s higher education institutions. The brazen display of these follies, in three public universities in particular, illustrates the perilous state of our higher education. People are fed up, yet we have not seen any action or sense of urgency so far to amend this situation.
The problems are so endemic that the universities seem incapable of combating them. Politicisation has effectively blurred the lines between the government and a university administration: the administration acts like an extended part of the government. Appointments of senior officials are driven almost exclusively by political connection and loyalty, not their academic work or commitment to education. So the interests of the self-serving administration are increasingly antithetical to the academic values like truth, objectivity, critical thinking, commitment, integrity, respect, and rational debate. It is hard to recall when a vice-chancellor stood up for academic freedom or the autonomy of their institution. Thus, rather than saying “no” to unfair demands, universities are inflaming rapacity and selfishness of the representatives of the ruling party and its cohorts.
In effect, there are widespread conflicts of interest in the universities. Senior administrators, who owe much of their success to the ruling party, are severely compromised; anti-intellectualism and corruption are deeply entrenched in how they function. What is lacking here is integrity, a standard of good practice.
The ongoing student protests at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University (BSMRSTU) in Gopalganj, triggered by the suspension of a student for her Facebook post, show how authoritarian and uncaring the administration has become. While demonstrating for the resignation of the vice chancellor of the university for his tyrannical rule, the students on September 21 were attacked by goons allegedly hired by the VC, who wanted to quell the protests by intimidating them. It was clearly an attempt to take control of minds through sheer physical violence.
Earlier in May, the same administration had manipulated the mechanism of serving show-cause notices to crush student activism against sexual harassment. Activities like posting status updates on Facebook and sharing newspaper articles on their timelines were treated as a crime against the university so that no one would dare raise their voice against the authorities. In the eyes of the administration, to criticise was to be guilty before being proven innocent. It again initiated disciplinary procedure against more students for seeking fair price of rice for farmers. Such harsh and violent policing and intimidation tactics indicate how narrow the focus of the university has become and how ideologically compromised it is that it can so easily attempt to silence critical voices.
But it has been proven time and again that, in the end, suppressive regimes cannot succeed in suppressing liberating thoughts with violence. The students always rise up, and the power of protests is greater than the violence of any repressive rule.
But not just the newer universities—two of the most prominent ones in our country are also witnessing how the authorities and some teachers holding responsible positions have been involved in irregularities and have made compromises to gain favours. The highly competitive admission system at the University of Dhaka has now been called into question after a newspaper report exposed how seven leaders of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union (DUCSU) and residential hall unions—all of them current and former leaders of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL)—got enrolled in an evening Master’s programme just in time to be eligible to contest the DUCSU election. At the same time, 27 other BCL activists also got enrolled flouting rules. The day after the publication of the report, the dean of the Faculty of Business Studies called a press conference and claimed that the department in question had the power to take any decision for the evening course. However, that was not the case: no department could break the rules of admission, even if it was for a professional programme. This explains why some BCL activists used force to silence the protesters who denounced this irregularity.
The corruption allegations at Jahangirnagar University have also raised serious concerns. Students and teachers have been demonstrating on the campus since August 23, after allegations surfaced that the VC gave a large amount of money to the leaders of the university unit of BCL so that they would not get in the way of a planned development project. The drama regarding a top BCL leader’s demand for a “fair share” of “Eid expenditure”—and his subsequent accusation against the VC and her family of giving BDT 16 million to local BCL leaders—hints at a collusion between the university administration and the student wing of the ruling party that had been at play until the intervention of the prime minister.
The three above scenarios are totally unacceptable. Do we need any more proof that the whole university system in our country is rotten? How could the entire system come to be structured in a way that the administrators get accustomed to accepting corruption and irregularities as a way of life?
The change in BCL leadership alone will not make much of a difference unless we realise why the liberating social justice mission of the universities has been replaced by the authoritarian developmental desire, and how they were transformed into sites of ruling power from being a counter-majoritarian force—and then do something about it. We need to a find a way to break the normalisation of thug regimes that operate on public university campuses. Fears run deep. But the tradition of student activism is marginalised or silenced.
In the context of growing concerns about diminishing autonomy and a declining democratic culture in universities, it is necessary to look back at the roads we took to reach this point. This problem, in the end, stems from the lack of democracy.
When people revolted against the autocratic regimes of late 1970s and 1980s, the main slogans were for democracy, for social justice, and against corruption. Following the 1990 uprising against autocratic rule, we re-adopted the democratic political system but in shallow and reductive ways. There was no democratic transformation in our social and economic life. It was a great tragedy that at the end of the long movement for democracy, the new leaders took up destruction of democracy in universities as an insurance for their lasting rule. Instead of cultivating in the students essential democratic habits and dispositions of citizenship, successive governments used them as their muscles.
Soon, many realised that in social or community spaces, the old problems still existed. So there were some who saw this failure as inherent in our democratic political culture. And democracy started to lose its meaning, appeal and became an empty slogan. Instead of revitalising it as a way of life, one that is participatory and based on social justice, they viewed it as part of the problem. Though the military-backed caretaker regime failed to leave a strong impact, the same ideology is shared by the current establishment: it is an ideology of controlling academia, whereby dissenting and liberal voices could no longer expose the authorities. This development is deeply troubling and is a major source of trouble in the universities today.
The same authoritarian ideology was behind our abandoning of the ideals of autonomy within the domain of higher education in favour of bureaucratic institutions. Among our 54 state-funded universities, none of the 45 new ones are autonomous; rather they are all government-controlled. Most of these new institutions lack enough qualified teachers and administrators, thus allowing hidden structures of power to take hold.
It is of utmost importance for the future of our academia that any attempt to reform the existing system must not present democracy as “part of the problem and so cannot be part of the solution”. Even our civil society members, who are otherwise champions of democracy, had cherished such an idea, but in the end, such a short-term solution never brought anything good.
It is true that if corrupt practices are all-pervasive in a society, the universities alone cannot remain untouched. But the university is one place that should be at the frontline to bring about change, to impart hope for a fairer future.
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at Dhaka University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org