The University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently sent 13 directives to all the public universities of Bangladesh to discontinue the so-called "evening" courses and programmes arguing that these part-time programmes running after sunset cannot brighten the image of our education system.
Media outlets and different stakeholders supported the cause blaming such programmes as the "cash-cow" for public university teachers. Recently, in an interview with BBC Bangla, Prof Kazi Shahidullah, head of UGC expressed his dissatisfaction over the mismanagement and unruliness prevailing over such part-time programmes.
First of all, we need to untie the knot of the rarely used term "evening course". Does UGC mean the courses and programmes running during the evening shift all week long or those running only on weekends or those apart from regular graduate and post-graduate programmes? There is no academic coinage as "evening course". As we have vaguely understood, UGC perhaps meant my third option, i.e. any part-time professional/executive course/programme falls under such interdiction.
Second, what really blackens the reputation of the public universities- the part-time courses or the regulatory crisis, mismanagement and exploitation of such programmes? Part time courses and programmes as a part of universities prevail all over the world at the top-ranking universities like Oxford, Harvard, MIT, Stanford just to name a few. In the American and Canadian Universities such programmes serve the professional skill developing purpose and releases the barriers to education caused by age, disciplinary background, ethnicity, geographical obstacles and so on. They call such programmes "Continuing Education" or some call it "Adult education". Francophone countries call it "Formation continue".
These programmes have greatly contributed in democratising education making it an open-sourced entity. Hence, ideally the co-existence of the part-time educational and professional programmes and graduate and post-graduate programmes is not contradictory nor defaming. And if such courses disrepute our public universities, as UGC might think, then why did UGC and the public universities' highest authorities (including Academic council and Syndicate) approve such educational extensions in the first place?
I tend to believe that it's rather the exploitation, management failure and easy-go nature of these programmes which is instrumental to the stigma and defamation of such programmes. Moreover, being involved with one these programme as an instructor over last six years, I realised that a reconnaissance of the strength of resource personnel, academic feasibility and identification of the possible challenges are some of the basic considerations of such programmes. Jumping onto such ventures with a poor faculty strength even without being able to run the regular graduate programmes of the department properly, will ultimately end up in academic disruption. Such unprepared programmes have rightly been accused as monetarily motivated. It is clearly a violation of the academic integrity.
Adding to UGC Chair's grievance, it can be added that his concerns are true in many cases where the syndicate-passed ordinances are not even followed by many weekend/evening programmes. The unruliness will naturally call such programmes into question. Ordinances issued for such programmes apart from many limitations also have well thought restrictions regarding class distribution, class size, teacher assignment, class duration according to credit weight and so on.
However, oftentimes these ordinances are violated and manipulated. Prof Shahidullah's accusation against many such programmes launched without UGC approval only justify the disciplinary unruliness of the think tanks of many such part time programmes. No wonder such loose ethics of many of our part time courses across the country invite the popular discourse about evening course as "money-making machine", "education business" and the like.
Third, regarding one of our popular dailies' identifying tag about the courses as "courses/ degrees sold for money", it can be argued that no course in the world is free. Oxford Continuing Education Programmes charge on an average GBP 350 for a part-time course delivered online or during weekends. And since, any part-time programme has the provision to work over-time or off-time for the faculty members, an extra sum is rightly justifiable.
Given that our programmes also charge extra fees to run the courses, the question of quality assurance will definitely come to the surface. Can we offer quality education in such programmes? Do we maintain the same evaluation strategy the two MA programmes running simultaneously in the same department – one under regular schedule while the other on weekends? Does the money factor relax our assessment policy? Are our regular programmes getting backgrounded behind the part-time courses? Do the part time arrangements disrupt the dynamism of our regular programmes which are the nucleus of any academic entity? Already many hints of authoritarian and unruly co-ordination defamed a number of such programmes but a strong regulation and restriction from UGC is always welcome and expected to restore the glory. It is worth noting that, any violation of such constructive directives in the form of ordinances or orders must be dealt seriously.
However, instead of consulting and asking for dialogues with public university stakeholders, issuing hasty directives runs the risk of diluting the spirit of the directives and thus further complicates the matter. Only two universities have so far decided to discontinue their part-time courses, whereas all other public universities have advertised for their new intakes. Hence, either the discretion of bodies like UGC is questioned or the validity and logic of UGC directives are challenged.
Bureaucracy and public academia should not stand squarely in opposition to each other. Similarly, public universities' autonomous status should not be undermined. Arbitrary practice of decision making creates instability among the educational institutions and it badly impacts on the human resource development. Our educational institutions often swing between the regulatory allowances and sanctions. Such ambiguous limbo affects the institutional performance.
Therefore, time has come to bring all the part-time courses, diplomas and programmes under strict and clearly-defined regulation and effective monitoring. If needed, to uphold the academic integrity, such programmes must be discontinued. University authorities should play an unyielding role in this regard. It is not the skill-developing and democratic spirit of education which is to be denounced, rather the manipulative and exploitative nature of many such continuing education programmes is to be corrected. Education must be represented as an acquired incentive, not as a taken-for-granted commodity.
Kazi Ashraf Uddin is Associate Professor at the Deptartment of English, Jahangirnagar University