MORE often than one would expect, political commentators and educationist are complaining in seminars, symposiums and television talk shows about the dire state of higher education in Bangladesh. Their primary concern is that the public universities have lost the glory that it has historically enjoyed as intellectual torchbearer of the nation. Why can’t they play the role as intellectual guide to the nation as they did in the language movement and our liberation war?
Recently, New Age Youth published a story on the present condition of tertiary level education in Bangladesh; a number of young university teachers expressed their concerns for the nose-diving quality. Among many, the teachers have named two major characteristics of our current education system — neo-liberalisation and politicisation — which are refraining the graduates from producing contextualised knowledge as well as contributing to the betterment of the ordinary people, as they did during the language movement and liberation war, respectively in 1952 and 1971.
These two phenomena, in long term, are producing symptoms that can be interpreted as alarming signals for the future predicament in education. Corruption by the university authorities, tightening grip of authoritarian tendencies of the universities chocking freedom of speech of the students and the teachers, government job driven public university students, lack of student participation in university’s decision making process, absent or ineffective student unions, insufficient research opportunities leading to low knowledge production, poor quality education in both private and public universities and centrally controlled students politics — all are but a few of the symptoms that can be linked to the two aforementioned characteristics.
THE term neo-liberalisation was coined in the post-World War I period by a small number of economists and legal scholars affiliated with the ‘Freiberg School’. However, the discourse of neo-liberalism comes from classical economic liberalism that emerged in the nineteenth century.
In relations to the phenomena of capitalism during the time of global recession of 1974-75, as observed by Paul Sweezy — slow growth rate, worldwide proliferation of monopolistic corporations and financialisation of capital accumulation process — can be considered as prelude to neo-liberalisation.
Economic, social, political and educational ideologies have been dominated by this idea, generated in the 1970s, in three waves — with the administration of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the fall of USSS in the early 1990s and the post 9/11 scenario where corporations are gaining more power and ‘normalisation’ of legitimate use of force.
Neo-liberalisation, in easy words, can be described as an ideology which is focused on market and is in favour of transforming ideas and policies to favour the market. Kim England and Kevin Ward, in their introduction of Neoliberalization: States, Networks, People outline the four major characteristics of neo-liberalisation — neoliberalism as an ideological hegemonic project, as policy and programme, as a state form and as a form of governmentality.
Neo-liberalism cannot be labelled as a mere economic idea or model. Rich J Gibson and E Wayne Ross, in their Neoliberalism and Education Reform (2007) observed that the economic, political, and cultural aspects of society are affected by the values, ideologies, and practices of neoliberalism. They further stressed that public education in North America and in others countries are under attack because of neoliberal government policies.
International financial organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are responsible for implementing neoliberal policies around the globe. Developed countries adopted these policies by decision and for less developed countries these international financial organisations spread loan traps and other deceitful policies to make these countries adopt their system. In case of Bangladesh, neo-liberalisation somewhat started after 1975 and Bangladesh was among the first set of countries to comply with these policies.
World Bank entered the Bangladesh education sector in 1984 with the project of expansion of the Institute of Business Administration of University of Dhaka. The major step towards adopting neoliberal policies for the education sector would come with the wake of democratisation of state through rejecting the military regime. Because, many would argue, the uprooting of the Ershad regime opened space for the ruling elites of Bangladesh to push the government for establishment of private universities by enacting the Private University Act 1992 thus paving the neo-liberal ideas and policies to enter the education sector.
The government later repealed the law and enacted Private University Act 2010. Experts have argued that the new law empowered board of trusties of the private universities. Moreover, the power elites have influenced the government to relax its regulations regarding private universities.
The major step towards neo-liberalisation came in 2005 when the ministry of education formed a six-member strategic planning committee headed by the chairman of University Grant Commission to formulate a ten-year Strategic Plan for Higher Education prescribed by the World Bank. In April 2006, UGC finalised a 20-year project to be ended in 2026.
Even though, UGC confirmed that they have considered opinion of all the stakeholders but academic community at large did not seem to think so and saw serious flaws in the plan. Many of the project members were selected because of their close relationship with the then ruling party and students and community representation were absent despite students’ being the major stakeholders of education.
In April 2006, the World Bank allocated $100 million for reforms of the higher education sector, making it the first instance where the WB directly injected money for educational purposes in Bangladesh. The HEQEP project is a World Bank funded project and WB in its official website describe the project in an explicitly patronising voice:
The main objective of the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project for Bangladesh is to improve the quality and relevance of the teaching and research environment in higher education institutions through encouraging both innovation and accountability within universities and by enhancing the technical and institutional capacity of the higher education sector.
Initially a five-year project but extended for five more years in 2014, HEQEP cost around $238.1 million. UGC implemented the project which was focused on industry-university collaborative research. It had four major points according to its website — promoting academic innovation in teaching, learning and research; institutional capacity building at UGC and universities; connectivity capacity building for research centres and universities and project management.
According to UGC website, more than 95 per cent of the project was targeted towards tertiary level education. Under this project, some 339 sub-projects have been implemented in 38 public and private universities, in selective departments. To be selected as part of the project, departments had to bid. This process is rather a double-edged sword — to win the bid a department has to be relatively better performing and the already weak departments could not pass the bid; as a result they remain weak.
Many educationists have criticised HEQEP for its exclusive focus on infrastructural development rather than a project to improve the quality of education. Tanzimuddin Khan, associate professor in International Relations of University Dhaka sheds light on this, ‘This project has apparently influenced public universities to adopt policies of infrastructural developments so that they could look well-groomed private universities do but this does not affect the knowledge production, nor does this directly affect the quality of education.’
Authorities, however, lauded this project as a success. After completion of the project in December 2018, the then UGC chairman Abdul Mannan told media, ‘The project was a 99.25 per cent success and according to World Bank, no other education project in Bangladesh has managed such success rate thus far’.
The members of University Teachers Network, an alliance of progressive university teachers sarcastically commented on the success, ‘It is a success, if success is determined through amount of money spent. Indeed, the fund allocated for this project was spent, but the question remains whether it is well spent, whether the project outcome managed to positively affect the academic environment on campus.’
The success of this project, in liberal terms, is that it has instilled market principle in pedagogical practices.
POLITICISATION of tertiary education does not, by any means, connote student politics rather it indicates the government’s intervention in every aspect of public universities. Students’ politics might be used as an apparatus to entertain government policies as well as maintain dominance on university campuses but we cannot forget the glorious past of our students’ politics, even if we set aside 1952 and 1971.
In 1959, then president of Pakistan, military dictator Ayub Khan formed a commission headed by education secretary SM Sharif to draft a national education policy that deprioritised education for all. The report, popularly known as SM Sharif Education policy, was published in 1962; its recommendations were so blatantly exclusionary that it sparked a student movement in the former East Pakistan where three young people including a student were killed when law enforcers fired at the protesters ultimately forcing the authorities to drop the policy.
During the regime of military dictator HM Ershad, education minister Mazid Khan proposed a controversial education policy in 1983. On February 14, 1983, thousands of students brought out a procession under the banner of Chatra Sangram Parishad (United Students Resistance) and marched towards the secretariat. The procession was obstructed by law enforcers near the High Court and a clash erupted. When law enforcers fired at the protesting students, at least ten were shot dead. This very moment of resistance was the cornerstone of anti-autocratic movement of the late 1980s that ultimately uprooted the military regime and installed democracy.
That glorious past, the productive relationship between the student body and the state, university and the state has long been disrupted. Recently in an interview with New Age Youth, Maidul Islam a faculty of sociology department at Chittagong University says:
‘Universities are failing to contribute to social change, they have been failing to produce knowledge that sow the seed of hope and dignity. Universities are places of practicing universal knowledge. The ultimate purpose of the university is to produce knowledge that will contribute to the making of free people living in a free society. Working towards that goal seems impossible today. In a totalitarian state, it tries to control other institutions. In the context of university, it is possible by appointing a loyal, partisan vice chancellor or a teachers’ quarter with vested interest. Teachers become divided according to the colours of their loyalty — red, white or blue. For them, research or class room become their secondary interests, the colour of their politics matter most to them. Their lives on campus revolve around this partisan politics. Eventually, university campuses have become a congregation of sycophants.’
Politicisation of the education sector could be best read through the recent allegations of corruption, nepotism and irregularities against vice-chancellors of a number of public universities. The vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, Farzana Islam has allegedly handed Tk 2 crore to JU Chhatra League as the first instalment to make the process smooth for the mega development project of Tk 1445 crore. Media reports also suggest that her husband and son are involved with one of the construction companies that bagged the huge contract.
Students of University of Dhaka brought allegation against the vice chancellor and the dean of the Business Faculty over the preferential treatment given to the Chhatra League leaders, for illegally enrolling 34 BCL leaders to the banking and insurance department ahead of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union election on March and eight of the leaders were elected to DUCSU and hall unions. At Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, Gopalganj, students are demanding immediate resignation of the vice chancellor for his alleged involvement in fund embezzlement, illegal exchange of money in teachers and other recruitments, even allegations of sexual harassment is also brought against him. The vice chancellor of Begum Rokeya University in Rangpur, Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah allegedly held 12 different administrative posts including the post of treasurer. The nature of allegations against the vice-chancellors support the claim of the University Teachers’ Network that the appointment in this position takes place based on their support for the political party in power rather than their leadership quality and academic credentials, which leads vice-chancellors to act as the mouthpiece of the government than visionary educationists.
For the past several years, general students have blamed the relationship of mutual loyalty between Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, and the university administration for ragging and other violence in halls of residence.
Partisan politics in universities also grasped the student politics and use muscle to dominate and control the campus. The Dhaka University Central Students Union election is a glaring example of such demonstration of mutual loyalty. It was an election for which students had to wait for nearly three decades, but in the end what was presented to them was a sham of election. Many progressive students body had termed it as an attempt at legitimising the prevailing dominance of Bangladesh Chhatra League on campus. And, their claim was not unfounded. During the electioneering, independent student candidates were intimidated; panels other than BCL were unable to campaign freely. On the day of the election, a team of 10 teachers decided to visit some voting booth and noticed many irregularities. A student of DU wrote his/her voting experience on Facebook:
‘After casting my vote, as I was walking out, I saw a BCL leader of my department sitting inside the booth, talking on the phone. He was just sitting there to intentionally stall the process. No wonder I had to wait two hours in the line to cast my vote.’
It is common knowledge now that the residential halls on university campuses are no longer controlled by the administration. Instead, the seat allocations for residential halls are controlled by BCL. It has been widely reported that freshmen need to join BCL activities to ensure their seat in the hall. The practice of ragging in university residential halls by BCL members has also been reported. On a number of occasions, BCL leaders have brutalised general students. In 2018, a second year student of the department of disaster management of DU was beaten by members of BCL DU unit to the extent that cornea and orbit of his right eye was grievously injured.
Student politics, in 10 years, have not been confined to controlling seats only. Chhatra League men, by gaining impunity on the campus, have unleashed havoc on ordinary people too. On December 9, 2012, Biswajit Das, a young tailor was brutally hacked to death in Dhaka by a number of Chhatra League activists. On July 25, in Magura, during clashes of two factions of Chhatra League, an unborn child was shot in the right eye in its mother’s womb.
Clearly the violent turn in our student politics is the direct consequence of a policy that main stream political parties in Bangladesh have adopted, it ideologically approves of the deployment of student demography as their muscle power, as force to maintain territorial gain. It is not a surprise that university authorities have allowed physical violence by BCL to contain any dissenting voice or students protest. It is not a surprise that student’s politics has become a matter of maintaining dominance on campus.
However, the crisis at public universities is the mere reflection of what is happening in Bangladesh at large. In the history of independent Bangladesh, public resistance against military rule broke the chain of oppression, it is only through similar people’s struggle against the prevailing ‘electoral’ authoritarianism that we can uproot tyrannical rule, corruption in public universities. In this historical context, the recent students’ protests from Jahangirnagar to Dhaka to Gopalganj are promissory.
Nahid Riyasad is a staff writer at New Age.
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