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.

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