Monday, 24 September, 2018, 1:25 PM
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Bangladesh’s private universities must offer a better workplace

Published : Monday, 10 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 857
Sheikh Nahid Neazy

In March 2018, the formidable Bangladeshi anti-poverty campaigner Sir Fazle Hasan Abed delivered a searing keynote speech at a conference titled "Assembly on Higher Education" at the University of Dhaka.

Sir Abed, who founded the world's largest non-governmental organisation, the international development charity BRAC, identified several key issues holding back Bangladesh's university system. Overcrowded classrooms, outdated courses and a failure to invest in developing lecturers' teaching skills were rightly pinpointed as major challenges, as was the overheated nature of student politics, which has sometimes spilled over into political violence on campuses.
One important challenge missing in his speech, however, was the lack of job security for teachers at Bangladesh's private universities. This factor has a corrosive effect on staff and students; it demoralises teachers and leads them to regard teaching as a temporary job, which inevitably affects the quality of their classes.

Unlike those at public universities, academics in the private sector cannot join academic unions -- known in Bangladesh as teachers' associations -- so they find it impossible to speak out effectively against injustice, protect their academic freedom and bargain with their university authorities over pay and conditions. Only Stamford University Bangladesh, established in Dhaka in 2002 and nothing to do with its US near-namesake, has allowed its faculty members to run such an association.
Unfortunately, most of the private university authorities are reluctant to allow the teachers to run an academic union - a platform which helps the academics to voice their concern regarding their dissatisfaction about the pay including fringe benefits, scholarship opportunities and adequate facilities. It seems they fear the collective body, which acts as a pressure group, because many of these universities don't follow the government rules properly. But the university authorities need to pay heed to the academics if they really want to ensure quality education.

Their plight was illustrated by an incident in July last year at BRAC University, an institution founded by Sir Abed in 2001. The sudden sacking of a law lecturer, on a 12-month contract, and his alleged manhandling by three senior staff members including the registrar, prompted hundreds of students and alumni to take to the Dhaka streets to demand his reinstatement. The agitation lasted for five days before the lecturer was reinstated. Although some academics also took part in the protests, the lack of a teachers' association prevented the lecturers' colleagues from taking further measures to demand his reinstatement, such as industrial action.

Recently 12 teachers, from the private Southeast University in Dhaka, lost their jobs. Two of them told me that they were in shock and despair since no reason for their termination had been provided. They were honourable teachers liked by their students but they were given no chance to defend themselves. This untoward incident was able to happen because the university, like most private institutions in Bangladesh, lacks proper statutes and rules about staff terms and conditions. It suits many university authorities to avoid clearly defining how teachers are recruited, promoted and dismissed. Some universities are even reluctant to comply with the basic governance requirements directed by the Private University Act passed in 2010.

As a result, some universities recruit newly-minted graduates for entry-level lecturer posts, but only offer a one-year contract, subject to renewal. The influx of these lecturers also undermines the job security and conditions of the existing staff, underlining that anyone who objects to the low pay levels with inadequate facilities will be replaced by one of these newcomers.
Teachers at most private universities also lack other benefits enjoyed by staff at public universities, such as health insurance, pension scheme, holiday pay and funds to support research and scholarship -- the latter inflicting long-term damage on careers, as well as undermining these institutions' own academic reputations.

Career growth at private universities is further damaged by their habit of hiring star professors from public universities, rather than promoting from within those who are serious about their careers. This is a predictable consequence of institutions where teachers' voices are not heard when it comes to job security and faculty self-governance. Moves to reform Bangladesh's university system (turning the existing University Grants Commission into Higher Education Commission) are underway, and these multiple failings of private universities must be addressed. The country's first private university was founded 26 years ago and there are now more than 100 of them. It is high time that they all adopted basic governance rules and well-defined terms and conditions for those who should be the beating heart of any educational institution. Without a supportive academic environment, academic staff will inevitably leave, and students will suffer in the long run.

Sheikh Nahid Neazy is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Stamford University, Dhaka



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