Starting out in 1991, the number of private universities in the country now stands at 108, with 3.5 lakh students and about 15,000 teachers. Some universities like North South University, Brac University, Independent University Bangladesh, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh and others have achieved academic successes and secured positions in global rankings. The Business Standard spoke to Professor Imran Rahman, vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, about the country's present situation of higher education, especially in private universities.
What is the role of private universities in expanding higher education in the country?
Private universities have been imparting education in the country for more than three decades. The timeline, however, is short compared to the public universities. But the leadership has already gone to the private side. The number of students in private universities is higher than in public ones except for the National University.
Many private universities have achieved national and international recognition. When maximum public university teachers and top management have become irresponsible about their duties, the private university teachers and management have been discharging their duties properly. They are even doing better quality research compared to public university teachers.
In India, the higher education cost at private universities is high. But the cost at Bangladeshi private universities is reasonable. So, a good number of students can study in private universities.
What are the challenges in operating private universities?
We (reputed private universities) are facing tremendous problems due to the government's immature decision. The government approved so many private universities which are not capable of running university activities. The image of reputed private universities is being tarnished due to these sub-standard ones.
The top private universities, in terms of academic and research activities, are deprived of getting government support. The government does not provide facilities based on performance. Our question is why the government approved these subpar universities before evaluating them properly.
The students and teachers get scholarships and other research funds in the USA and even in India. They get tax grants and other reasonable facilities. They get lands from the government to expand their academic activities. But in Bangladesh, we have to provide income tax to the government and buy the lands at high prices.
So, the government should provide research funds and scholarships to private university teachers and students.
The University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, North South University, Brac University, Independent University Bangladesh, United International University, American International University Bangladesh and some other universities have been imparting world-standard education and doing good research. But unfortunately, the education ministry did not permit these universities for conducting MPhil and PhD programmes.
Private universities all over the world even in India are allowed to run MPhil and PhD programmes. I suggest that the University Grants Commission (UGC) make a policy with some conditions and allow private universities to carry out PhD programmes.
We are facing a severe shortage of quality teachers and cannot open new departments for that. Even, the process of hiring foreign teachers is very complex. The foreign students also show their reluctance to study in private universities because of these complexities.
How do you evaluate the academic quality of university students?
Almost all students in Bangladesh who passed the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations want to admit to universities thinking of it as their right.
But higher education should not be for all and should not be thought of as right. Only the meritorious ones whose target is to be teachers or researchers should enrol themselves at universities. The rest should take technical learnings and join the workforce.
Unfortunately, the educational standard of the HSC-passed students is not up to the mark. They are not proficient in languages even in Bangla. They cannot think critically and openly.
Poor quality teachers, curriculum and pedagogy are behind such sub-standard students. The government must improve the teachers' quality so that they can build a better-educated generation. Otherwise, it will also be tough to ensure quality higher education.
Do you think the VCs of private universities should have the freedom to run academic activities?
Yes, the vice-chancellors (VCs) must have the liberty to conduct academic and also administrative activities for making the institutions successful. Fortunately, I got all the freedom and I can operate without any barriers. ULAB can be a model in this regard. It is also unexpected that the trustee board members of many universities create obstacles in running the universities.
How does ULAB do research work?
ULAB is a university with a strong research base. We are one of the highest spenders on research among private universities. We have six well-functioning research centres that we started with entirely our own funding.
The research centres are successfully bidding for and winning international grants, which fund an increasing proportion of our research expenses. I am pleased that ULAB is conducting several projects in collaboration with International universities and institutions.
We also encourage our faculties to publish in international quality indexed journals. Private universities should be allowed to offer PhD programmes so that the research and publication output can increase exponentially.
What is your initiative on extracurricular activities?
A significant portion of my time is taken up with networking activities with various stakeholders. I am a big believer in building strong collaborations with industry and leadership development organisations.
I am the vice-president of the Foundation for Learning, Teaching and Research whose aim is to advance the teaching and researching capabilities of university teachers.
I am a trustee of Valor of Bangladesh, a leadership development platform backing by some of the top professionals across a variety of business sectors.
I am the president of the Board of Trustees of Teach for Bangladesh, an amazing youth leadership institution which also changes the lives of young learners in underserved schools.
Music provides an enjoyable distraction from professional work. I have been a member of the musical band Renaissance since 1997, as a singer and guitarist.
Are you optimistic about quality higher education in Bangladesh?
I am very optimistic about the future of higher education in the country. Look at the expansion of tertiary education over the past three decades. More and more young learners are keen on entering universities.
The challenge is to improve the quality of higher education and bring Bangladeshi universities closer to international standards. I am confident this will happen soon.