Private University in Bangladesh is a recent phenomenon although such institutions of higher learning flourished in many countries long time ago. In Bangladesh the state had the monopoly of providing higher education (university level) until 1992. Prior to 1993, only a few people would believe that private sector would be able to impart high quality higher education. They feared that it was too risky to entrust the responsibility of provisioning higher education with the private sector. But this fear proved to be unfounded in 1996 when the first batch of graduates produced by the first government approved private university (North South University) were employed quickly after their graduation at reasonably high salaries.
The emergence of private universities was prompted by several factors of which two are most important. (1) The demand for higher education increased much faster than the public university system could cope with; and (2) scarcity of public fund and other resources i.e. the government could not mobilise the required infrastructures, and financial and human resources to match the rapidly increasing demand. With continuous widening of the gap between the supply of and demand for higher education the private entrepreneurs, philanthropists and social leaders found new opportunities to serve the society by establishing private universities. On the other hand, the government realised that without public-private partnership the rapidly increasing demand for higher education could not be met. The government decided to attract private investment in higher education sector. Eventually government enacted the Private Universities Act 1992 (subsequently replaced by Private University Act 2010) to provide a legal framework for the establishment of private universities with the assumption that these universities would supplement the government efforts to meet the demand for higher education. Under this Act any private individual or group of individuals and philanthropic organizations (Trusts or Foundations) can establish and run a degree-awarding self-financed university by fulfilling certain conditions mentioned in the Private University Act. Response from the private sector was encouraging. Within a short period of time, private sector emerged as an additional and successful provider of higher education. It is to be noted that the operation of the private universities was encouraged not to replace public universities but to work side by side with the public universities. It was recognised rightly that to meet the national demand both public and private universities must coexist to cooperate and compete to provide high quality higher education.'
However, at the early stages, the newly established universities experienced birth pangs and teething problems. The founders of many universities faced serious problems in mobilizing necessary financial and infrastructural resources. Almost all of them held their classes for quite a long time in rented buildings which were not suitable for universities. None of them could build their own permanent campuses in 5 years, the time limit set in the Private University Act 1992. There were dearth of teachers, well equipped class rooms and labs, teaching aids, library and other resources. As it happened in many countries, mushrooming of private universities led to the establishment and continuation of low quality universities. Occasional allegations were reported that some founders ran the universities primarily to make money. They admitted students and collected tuition money but did not hire qualified teachers. Revenue was their main consideration, not the quality of education. Inevitably, the students, guardians, government and the society as a whole got concerned. The government therefore decided to reverse the trend by creating an environment in which non-performing low quality universities would not be able to operate. It thought that the Private University Act 1992/98 was not geared to quality assurance, human resource development, social service and good governance. Eventually, the Parliament repealed the 1992 Act and passed the Private University Act 2010. For quality assurance, better management and good governance the new Act makes provisions of several statutory bodies like Board of Trustees (BOT), Syndicate, Academic Council, Curriculum Committee, Finance Committee, Appointment Committee, Disciplinary Committee, etc. and provision of punishment for non-compliance. The composition, functions and authority of these bodies, and punishable offences are described in the 2010 Act. The proportion of representation of the founders, government, UGC, teachers and academia in these bodies is prescribed. The new Act makes the Vice Chancellor (VC) ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees. The VC is also the chief executive and academic officer of the University. Honourable President of Bangladesh is the Chancellor of all private universities, and he appoints the Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Treasurer on recommendation of the Board of Trustees. Most importantly, this Act has mandated the formation of an Accreditation Council for quality Assurance of the Private Universities. Beside, by a separate order, the government has circulated a set of detailed instructions to university management requiring the latter to prevent sexual harassment, eve teasing, etc. All these help the private universities practice good governance.'
The Private University Act 2010 is an innovative one. Under this Act, a Representative of the Ministry of Education (MOE) and another from University Grants Commission are designated as members of the Syndicate. As stipulated in the Act, the university grants commission (UGC) supervises and monitors all the private universities on behalf of the MOE. The government grants permission to operate a private university on recommendation of the UGC. The University must have all its academic and degree programs including individual course curricula approved by the UGC. It prescribes the minimum academic qualifications for the teachers of the university. The UGC is authorised to ask for any information on the universities, and inspect any university to determine if it complies with the provisions of Private University Act. The university however has freedom to fix the tuition and other fees and teachers' remuneration. The university is required to be transparent in revenue collections and expenditures, and must submit to UGC and MOE annual audited financial reports in Format prescribed by the UGC within a given date.
The new Act includes provisions for quality assurance, check and balance for preventing wrongdoing and institutionalizing good governance through participatory management. To ensure participatory management, the Act 2010 requires that the founders and university management hold at least once a year a meeting for exchanging views with teachers, students, parents / guardians, alumni of the university and other stakeholders. Beside, the new Act requires the establishment of a government-sponsored but independent Accreditation Council (AC). The scope and TOR of Accreditation Council are different from that of UGC. These are two different bodies though their working relationship partially overlaps. The AC is created to review, assess and certify the quality level of individual programs/ schools or the university as a whole. An AC shares the information / results of its exercises with the MOE, UGC and the general public. The dissemination of such information /data (ranking of the university) puts the universities in competitive position and in turn motivates them to continually improve quality of education; it also helps the potential students choose programs / Schools/ universities that meet their study goals. A university accredited by an internationally recognised AC holds higher reputation than a non-accredited university.
Although there are many for-profit universities in the world, in Bangladesh the founders of a private university are not allowed to take away any portion of the surpluses, if any, in the form of dividend or direct financial benefits. If there are any surpluses, that must be ploughed back for the development and expansion of the university. Contrary to the practices in other countries, in Bangladesh, a private university does not get any supports, financial or material from the government; even no tax break. On the top of it, its surpluses are subject to 15% income taxes. In addition, students pay VAT @ 4.5% on the total tuition they pay each Semester. This implies that a private university is not only an institution of higher learning; it is also a source of revenues for the government. However, some universities have challenged the imposition of such taxes by the government. They have gone to the court. Situation may be different once court verdict is available.
As in most countries, the founders of private universities want to have full control over the management of the university. Against this the government / UGC wants to have full supervisory and monitoring function in the name of quality assurance and protecting interest of the students. According to the MOE /UGC the new Act has been designed to take a balanced and pragmatic approach. The Association of Private Universities, the mouthpiece of the founders argue that the 2010 Act provides scope of undue interference by the UGC/MOE in the management of the universities that have discouraging effects. On the other hand, the Government claims that the new Act will minimize the scope of disputes between the stakeholders, therefore, help promote good governance. The composition of various committees provides opportunities for effective faculty governance in spite of the provision that authorises the BOT to have the final say in each important matter like approving strategic plans, raising, controlling and using funds, approving annual budgets, recruiting faculties, etc.
The private universities in general follow the American education system, that is, a four-year first degree program consisting of 12 Semesters. With the success of the first university many other philanthropists came forward to establish universities. Within a short time the number of private universities crossed the number of public universities. There are as many as 62 private universities as opposed to 31 public universities (May 2012). More private universities are in the pipeline. According to an unofficial estimate, currently, about 175000 and 200000 students are studying at public and private universities respectively. This means private universities are gaining higher visibility, although most private universities impart poor quality education. Sizes of the individual universities in terms of enrolment and program diversity vary. The largest university claims to have more than 18,000 students enrolled. Against this, there are new universities where hardly 1000 students study.
Most universities are market-driven and tuition-driven. By implication, the private universities offer only those degree programs which they can sell in the market at high prices i.e. charging high tuition and other fees including Campus Development Fees. Since no private universities get any financial supports from the government, they raise all the funds necessary to operate, maintain, develop and expand the university from the students. Of necessity, they need to generate large surpluses to build campuses. In a sense, these universities require the current generation (students) to subsidise the education of future generation (students) who will attend classes in the buildings/class rooms to be built in future with tuition money of present generation (students) because part of the surpluses generated currently is used to buy and develop land on which campus buildings are to be constructed. Since tuition and fees are the only sources of revenues the sustainability of a private university is the function of how carefully the academic programs offered are selected, and how the tuition structures are designed.
From the experiences it is evident that students want to study primarily those courses which more or less guarantee them better jobs. Therefore in almost all private universities Business School has the largest enrolment followed by ICT related subjects. Very few universities offer degrees in subjects that are socially desirable like Philosophy, Sociology, Bangla etc.
The phenomenal growth of private universities indicates the increasingly important role they play in imparting higher education in Bangladesh. These universities produce much needed highly skilled manpower. Many of their graduates are employable both locally and internationally. Number of students that go to foreign countries for higher studies has decreased. This saves a huge amount of foreign exchange. The graduates of these universities contribute substantially to national development. The demand for world-class private university will increase further in future. Without private universities national demand for higher education cannot be met. Both public and private universities must coexist to supplement and complement each other. Tuition varies between the universities. Some are very expensive while others are inexpensive depending on the quality of education and physical infrastructures available, teaching aids and electronic infrastructures used in imparting education. On average however, the private universities, particularly the good ones are much more expensive than the public universities. Therefore mostly the children of rich families can afford to study at private universities. There is a general allegation that poor but meritorious students are denied access to private universities. This allegation is however debatable. Private University Act requires the founders to allow at least 6% of the registered students to study at the university without paying tuition if they are meritorious but financially disadvantaged. Most universities comply with this requirement.
As in other countries, private universities of Bangladesh frequently claim their commitment to quality assurance. But in reality, only a small number of universities can maintain quality. There are many reasons for this situation. Some important reasons are: After 12 years of education, brighter candidates opt for public universities that enjoy higher reputation. Those who fail, first try to get admission into better private universities. Residual lower quality students tend to go to low quality private universities. These low quality students create problems for the universities in maintaining quality. However, most of these universities struggle to mobilise resources necessary for quality assurance. Usually these universities fail to attract good teachers. They greatly depend on teachers who retired from other universities, particularly from public universities, retired bureaucrats, and part timers from public universities who teach at several universities to maximise their ready cash. Dearth of teachers causes some collateral damages on quality. Because too many students are admitted to maximize revenue both full time and part time teachers are required to teach more than normal load. When teachers teach too many courses, their teaching efficiency automatically goes down, so does quality of education. This situation persists not because there is a dearth of teachers; it persists also because the university management finds overload system cheaper. The resource poor universities with low image are in vicious circle. They cannot attract adequate number of good students. To increase their revenue they admit too many poor quality students. They cannot recruit teachers with high reputation. All these factors lower their image further. They continue to impart low quality education. Such low quality universities co-exist with high quality world-class universities in almost all countries. This is not some thing unique in Bangladesh. Of course there are private universities that try to be ranked as good university. Private University Act encourages such initiatives of the founders. It is hoped that with the effective functioning of the Accreditation Council, the relative number of low quality universities will decrease. [Hafiz GA Siddiqi]