More private universities despite falling enrolment

Bangladesh authorities are giving the nod to the establishment of more private universities, even though the number of students and teachers at such higher education institutions has been dropping for the last four years – much to the consternation of higher education experts.

The authorities have approved 16 new private universities during the four-year period since 2018. Of these, two private universities – Tista University, Rangpur and International Islamic University of Science and Technology in Dhaka – were approved in April, according to sources in the Bangladesh higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC).

In 2018 there were 361,792 students and 16,074 teachers at private universities. By 2021 the number of enrolled students dropped to 310,107 and the number of teachers fell to 15,393, UGC data shows.

“The number of students went down as the majority of the private universities are failing to provide quality education,” former UGC chairman Abdul Mannan told University World News.

UGC member Biswajit Chanda, who monitors private universities, told University World News people lose confidence in universities that are mired in irregularities, corruption, and do not honour existing laws. This leads to decreases in the number of students at these universities.

Both Chanda and Sheikh Kabir Hossain, president of the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh, a guild of owners of private universities, told University World News the COVID-19 pandemic was a prime reason for the fall in the number of students and teachers.

Besides this, the government is setting up new public universities in many places, leading to a drop in the number of students at private universities in those areas. “Who wants to study in an expensive educational institution?” said Hossain.

In Bangladesh, with a few exceptions, a graduate or postgraduate student needs to spend Tk5 lakh to Tk516 lakh (US$4,630 to US$14,815) on tuition and other fees to complete courses at private universities.

The government in principle decided not to allow any more private universities in the capital some years ago, as Dhaka already had an abundance of public and private universities, but 16 universities have nonetheless been approved in the last four years.

Poor academic atmosphere

Education experts said that on many occasions the “profiteering attitude” of private universities’ trustee board members created a “non-congenial” academic atmosphere.

“The profiteering attitude of many trustees is a big barrier to private universities ensuring quality education. They do not want to invest in appointing qualified teachers, vice-chancellors, or in developing infrastructure,” another former UGC chairman AK Azad Chowdhury told University World News.

Chowdhury said initially many entrepreneurs show interest in setting up private universities, but with time they lose it, especially when the need for reinvestment arises. “They take the universities as a business enterprise, [with] almost no mentality to run [it for] educational purposes.”

A Transparency International Bangladesh study in 2014 said about 30% of founders of private universities in Bangladesh were businessmen, 22.5% were academics and 8.5% were politicians.

Education quality

Bangladesh approved its first private university, North South University, in 1992 as a non-profit institution. It aimed to meet a growing demand for higher education by expanding higher education opportunities and providing degrees suitable for the job market, awarding degrees in a short time without academic session disruptions, typically caused by political instability which were common in public universities. It also aimed to prevent the outflow of talented students to foreign universities, education experts said.

At present, of the 111 private universities, only 15-20 are providing quality education, according to Mannan and Chowdhury. There are 57 private universities in the capital Dhaka, and 10 private universities in Bangladesh’s second largest centre, Chattogram city (Chittagong).

The problem of education quality at private universities is linked to several issues. For example, in some cases universities were set up without adequate planning as approval was allegedly obtained using political connections.

There have also been allegations of management irregularities and corruption, the experts added.

According to UGC officials, many private universities are conducting academic activities in a way that flouts the provisions of the Private University Act 2010 that repealed the 1992 Act and is intended to ensure proper academic standards, good management and discipline.

“There is no meaning in opening new universities without preparing teachers. Many of these universities get permission primarily due to political considerations. It is not right at all,” Mannan said, adding: “You are allowing someone to run a university who has no experience of running a primary school.”

Research is one of the main tasks of a university but a total of 26 private universities did not allocate any money for research, according to the UGC’s 2021 report released in January this year.

Flouting the act

Under the Private Universities Act, a university must own a permanent campus within seven years of its launch. Universities in Dhaka and Chattogram were required to have permanent campuses on at least 1 acre of land, and in other areas on 2 acres of land.

Some 77 universities are over seven years old but only 26 have permanent campuses, according to the latest UGC annual report for 2021,

Many of these universities are operating from rented buildings, and almost all hold classes in premises regarded by the authorities as not suitable for universities. There was a dearth of well-equipped classrooms, labs, libraries and other resources, said a senior UGC official on condition of anonymity.

Many universities run courses that are not approved by the UGC and are essentially operating unauthorised campuses.

In April 2022 the UGC declared the temporary campuses of 22 private universities illegal and said the universities would not be allowed to admit new students unless they shifted to permanent campuses by 31 December that year.

Earlier this year the UGC ordered four private universities to stop enrolling new students because of a failure to move to permanent campuses within the deadline. The universities are Stamford University Bangladesh, Asa University, Prime Asia University and Victoria University.

Shortage of teachers and university leaders

There is also a shortage of qualified teachers, the same senior UGC official said. More worrying is that the total number of teachers has fallen although the number of private universities is rising, he said.

“I will not hesitate to say that I don’t think we need so many universities, absolutely not. Why not? The answer is, a university doesn’t only mean some buildings. The first thing is: we need good faculty members,” Mannan said.

“As there is a crisis of teachers, one faculty [member] needs to take five or six courses. I think this is not humanly possible. They need to take so many courses for the sake of their jobs,” he added.

According to the act, a private university should have an approved vice-chancellor, pro-vice chancellor and treasurer, but up to March this year, 31 universities did not have a vice-chancellor.

Official figures show that 70 private universities are running without a pro-vice Chancellor and 36 without a university treasurer. Moreover, three universities have no vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellor and treasurer.

Officials said a vice-chancellor is a must at a university as degree certificates are required to have the signature of the vice-chancellor, appointed by the chancellor, and examination controller of the university.

Hossain said many universities faced a lack of qualified people when they wanted to appoint a vice-chancellor or pro-vice-chancellor.

However, Chowdhury noted: “Many trustees remain reluctant to appoint vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and treasurers as it requires a hefty amount of money, and it may divide their [trustees’] power.”

Chanda said the UGC is keeping pressure on authorities to approve the appointment of vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors and treasurers.

Political militancy

The authorities have also had to step in to curb politicisation of some private university boards.

In August last year, Abdul Hamid, then president of Bangladesh and chancellor of all private universities, reconstituted the board of trustees of North South University by dropping seven of its former members after some members of the previous board were “found to be involved in anti-state activities, sponsorship of militancy, corruption and arbitrariness,” by a UGC probe.

In September 2022 Hamid also reconstituted Manarat International University’s board of trustees, abolishing the previous one, due to an allegation that some immediate past members were involved in “militancy and anti-state activities and also provoked students to be involved in politics of Jamaat”.

Jamaat-e-Islami is Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party.

Provoking militancy and helping to plan militant activities is a clear violation of existing laws, including the Private University Act 2010, according to a presidential order.

Correction: This article was changed on 11 June to report that the first private university established, North South University, was a non-profit university not a for-profit university as previously stated.[/url]