Is quality education possible in the affiliated college system?
The crisis of general higher education in affiliated general colleges has become a cause for concern in Bangladesh. Particularly worrying is the high rate of unemployment among the graduates of affiliated colleges: according to a recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), around 66 percent of graduates from colleges affiliated with the National University are unemployed. Affiliated colleges have lost their credibility as higher education providers to society and the economy at large. When one considers that the affiliated college system of higher education has been working successfully in some South Asian countries, particularly India, one is forced to ask: Why has the system not been working successfully in Bangladesh? How does our system differ from that in other countries?
Prior to the Partition in 1947, the British rulers founded a network of colleges to educate the citizens of the subcontinent, a part of which was Calcutta Presidency College, established in 1817. Following the pattern of the University of London, the British rulers founded three universities, including the University of Calcutta. The Presidency College was the first college affiliated to the University of Calcutta. During British rule, the affiliating colleges were only providing higher education in the subcontinent—there was no concern about the quality of said education. So, the system of affiliated colleges has existed in this region for more than 150 years.
Currently, the University of Calcutta has 160 affiliated colleges and institutions, the University of Delhi has 66 affiliating colleges, the University of Punjab has 85 affiliated colleges, and the Tribhuvan University of Nepal has 600 affiliated colleges. In Bangladesh, the National University has 2,260 colleges across the country affiliated to it, while 15 other public universities collectively have 110 affiliated colleges. The affiliated college system exists in the UK as well. As of 2021, the University of London has 20 affiliated colleges of higher education, while the University of Cambridge has 31 affiliated colleges, among others.
In Bangladesh, the National University is the largest provider of higher education, as with the network of 2,260 colleges, it enrols approximately 70 percent of the total students at the tertiary level of education.
Last year, six expert committees constituted by the Secondary and Higher Education Division (SHED) investigated the current situation of the affiliated colleges in the country, focusing on these areas: a) access and equity; b) quality and relevance; c) management of colleges; d) financing of colleges; and e) science and information and communication technology in education. After their investigation, they produced six reports highlighting the problems in the current system. Among them, acute shortage of teachers, lack of classrooms, lack of purposely built libraries, inadequate stock of books, and lack of laboratory facilities as well as properly trained assistants are some of the key problems that the committees found in the system. The most stunning revelation was the process through which a college becomes affiliated with a university.
In Bangladesh, an intermediate college is affiliated to the National University as a general higher education college (except professional colleges) after successfully operating as an intermediate college. But after getting affiliated to the university, the college does not rescind its responsibilities of intermediate education. That means a higher education college runs two different streams of education—higher secondary and undergraduate—simultaneously, where a teacher who teaches students of intermediate classes, also teaches undergraduate students. This is one of the fundamental peculiarities in the provisions regarding the affiliation of colleges with the National University.
Because of the coexistence of two different streams of education in a single institution, the status of a college in public policy documents is unclear, and consequently, the status of a teacher from an affiliated college is unclear, too. To elaborate the matter further, in an affiliated college, a teacher is to teach courses of various types, and there is no scope for specialised teaching as we see in universities, medical colleges, and technical institutions. The ambiguity is also reflected in the public policy relevant to affiliated colleges. As an institution of higher education, the affiliated colleges do not receive increased funding from the government. Even as a regulator of higher education in Bangladesh, the University Grants Commission (UGC) does not have any authority on the affiliated colleges.
Compared to that, in India, an affiliating university integrates a college of higher education by granting the institution the status of "deemed university" at its inception. And the affiliated colleges never offer intermediate education. Hence, the status of an affiliated college and its teaching staff is clear to the policymakers. In India, the university regulator monitors and supervises the state of higher education in the affiliated colleges, treats the teaching staff the same as the university teaching staff, and provides state grants like it does to public universities.
In sum, the affiliated college system in Bangladesh is completely different from that in India or other countries, even though the roots of these systems are the same. The key weaknesses in the system in Bangladesh are two: Firstly, the size of the network of colleges under one university (National University) is huge; secondly, the coexistence of higher secondary and tertiary educations. Because of the huge number of affiliated colleges, the affiliating university is barely capable of supervising and monitoring the entire network. Secondly, although the National Education Policy, 2010 has recommended making intermediate education an integral part of the secondary education system, it has yet to be implemented. Under the current arrangement of the affiliated college system, we cannot achieve and provide quality higher education. However, there is hope as the government has been working to prepare a strategic plan to make some required reforms of the existing system. The strategic plan has many problems to solve, and we expect that it will address the fundamental structural flaws in the affiliated college system. The policymakers may take a leaf out of the book of the countries who have been successful in implementing this system, and apply the lessons that are relevant to our country.
Shamsul Arifeen Khan Mamun, PhD, is consultant at College Education Development Project (CEDP).