Legal changes aim to improve private university governance

The Bangladesh government is mulling a new law that comes with strict regulations for the setting up and operating of private universities in order to improve governance and transparency in the sector.

The government is working on amendments to the existing Private University Act of 2010 involving major changes that will make it mandatory for at least a third of the members of a board of trustees of a private university to be academics and no trustee can hold an office of profit.

Other major changes in the draft include empowering the government or the higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC), to appoint observers at private universities for any situation that arises that could hamper academic activities.

The ministry’s draft shows that besides limiting the powers, allowances and other facilities provided to members of the board of trustees, it also wants to introduce “quality assurance cells” at universities to maintain the standard of private higher education.

The draft of the law obtained by University World News states: “It is a matter of concern that the trend of corruption, nepotism, and academic, financial and administrative irregularities at private universities increased alarmingly in recent times”.

More empowerment of universities and the UGC, and stricter and faster enforcement of laws, is necessary in order to establish good governance in universities and higher education, it stated.

More transparency

A committee formed by the Ministry of Education recently prepared a draft of the amended law, which is now being finalised for cabinet approval. It will then be tabled in the country’s parliament.

“The new law is not a stricter law; rather, it will bring more transparency in the operation of the non-government universities,” Professor Biswajit Chanda, chief of the committee that prepared the draft, told University World News.

Once in force, it is expected to significantly reduce differences between public and non-government universities in terms of academic and administrative activities, said Chanda, who is also a UGC member tasked with monitoring private universities.

“Academics will be able to play a positive role in giving advice on the academic atmosphere and research of the university,” Chanda said.

The appointment of observers will take place only when there is disorder in the university administration, he said, “and while facing a crisis period when the university is on the brink of closure. On many occasions authorities appoint [such] administrations in banking and other sectors”, he noted.

‘Virtual businesses’

UGC and education ministry officials say many universities have become virtual family entities or businesses.

Under the existing law a university can have between nine to 21 members on a trustees’ board. The new draft law says at least a third of these should be academics.

With academics forming one-third of trustees “there will be balance on the board. It will also reduce chances of corruption”, a UGC official said.

Academics say on many occasions they have witnessed a “profiteering attitude” among trustees, who also create a “non-congenial” academic atmosphere.

Another former UGC chairman, Professor Nazrul Islam, told University World News that appointing one-third of academics to trustee boards and not allowing trustees to hold an office of profit were “positive” developments.

“Many trustee board members are not that responsible; they want to take some benefits,” he said.

Other UGC officials said more academic trustees would definitely change how private universities operate. They noted that at some universities’ trustees were in conflict over university ownership, while some were involved in “irregularities”.

A Transparency International Bangladesh study in 2014 found about 30% of founders of private universities in Bangladesh were businessmen, 22.5% were academics and 8.5% were politicians. A UGC member said that since 2014, the number of businessmen among trustees has been on the rise.

New tuition fee rules

The draft also says the number of seats for each private university programme should be fixed by the UGC, and any exceptions will be tantamount to breach of the law.

Currently, private universities need to reserve a 6% quota for the children of freedom fighters during the 1971 war, and poor, meritorious students, to study free of cost. The draft proposes 3% of seats to be set aside for the children of freedom fighters and 6% for poor, meritorious students.

Private universities will also require UGC approval before changing students' tuition fees that were fixed at the time of their admission.

Under the existing law, private universities can fix tuition and other fees, keeping in mind the socio-economic conditions in the country, and these must be approved by the UGC. The draft keeps that provision, with an additional proviso that a private university will require approval for any changes in fees. Thus, private universities will not under the new law be able to change the fees fixed at the time of a student’s admission until the programme is completed.

A UGC official said freezing tuition fees until the end of a programme is significant, as on many occasions, increasing tuition and other fees during the course puts an extra financial burden on students and their guardians. Universities will also need to publish the list of admitted students and those who completed graduation on their website.

In Bangladesh, with a few exceptions, a graduate or postgraduate student spends BDT500,000 to BDT1.6 million (US$4,630 to US$14,815) on tuition and other fees to complete courses at private universities.

Sheikh Kabir Hossain, president of the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh, a guild of owners of private universities, told University World News that universities should not require UGC approval to fix tuition fees. Rather, private universities can decide on the matter after discussions with the UGC.

“Why will they [the UGC] fix the tuition fee? Will they provide us a subsidy?” he said. But he noted that fixing the number of seats will be good for smaller universities as larger universities enrol many students.

Balance in trustee boards

The draft also proposes that a trustee will not be able to receive financial benefits for attending any meeting or for other university-related activities. Trustees and their family members will not hold any offices of profit at a university.

The draft proposes that there “will be no change in the trustees without the recommendation of the UGC and approval of the government. If needed, the UGC or government can appoint an observer at the universities”.

On paper private universities in Bangladesh are non-profit, former UGC chairman AK Azad Chowdhury told University World News. “Many trustees want [to make a] profit. They want profit as they consider universities like any other enterprise. This attitude is a big hurdle for private universities to run smoothly and ensure quality education,” he added.

Hossain has opposed the proposal to have one-third academics making up the trustee board, arguing that if academics invest in the university there should be no objections to them being trustees.
He has also objected to the appointment of observers. “But [as] private universities are non-profit, there is no reason to appoint observers here. Each university has a syndicate with representatives of the chancellor and the UGC; they act like observers,” Hossain said.

However, he agreed that trustees and their families should not hold an office of profit at the university as it is a conflict of interest.

Tougher provisions

The draft indicates that a private university can only be approved if it has at least 100,000 square feet area of owned or rented space, instead of 25,000 square feet under the current regulations.

For a permanent campus, institutions should have at least five acres of land. At present they need only one acre of land for permanent campuses in the Dhaka and Chattogram (Chittagong) metropolitan areas and two acres in other areas.

Private universities should have a BDT30 to BDT80 million reserve fund, the draft said, compared to BDT15 to 50 million at present.

Bangladesh currently has 112 private non-profit universities. The first private university was established in 1992 through a law enacted that year and aimed at meeting a growing demand for higher education. The law was amended in 2010 to ensure administrative and financial discipline at private universities as well as good management and education standards.