As the Foreign University Operating Rule 2014 is going through its final drafting stages at the education ministry, it is time to assess the merits of running foreign university branch campuses. However, there is an impediment – a difference of opinion between the UGC and the Ministry of Education.
While the UGC wants foreign university branch campuses to operate within the country, the Education Ministry has never expressed its interest in such a move. Nonetheless, only Monash University has been allowed to operate after the declaration on 25 February 2021. The reason is apparent: The ministry has a deep penetration of private universities that have created an oligopolistic market structure; they operate within the state to preserve their interest.
As in the case of any sector of the economy, firms that dominate a particular economic sector do not desire competition as it might negatively impact their profit margins. The state has been marginally successful in retaining its autonomy and offering quality education to the next generation of youth which can only be assured through foreign competition as it enhances productivity: as evidenced by existing economic theories.
Despite the obvious advantages, the narrative of foreign universities deteriorating the quality of education dominates media discourse, particularly in television talk shows. How valid is this argument? International student enrolment in Malaysia increased after legislative reforms were introduced in 1996 that opened the higher education market to foreign competition.
The opening up of Australian and British University branch campuses in Malaysia attracted quality talent from foreign countries, enabling the mobility of academics and students that enhanced the country's research output and teaching quality. Moreover, neighbouring India recently passed a legislative reform that will allow foreign universities to set up branch campuses in the country as it prepares to establish itself as a hub of higher education in the region.
Already, Bangladesh is ranked among the least innovative countries in the world, and quality higher education is critical to harness creativity. And private universities will play a critical role in this: currently, 47% of the country's student population are enrolled at private universities.
However, the biggest impediment to good education in private universities is the prioritisation of profit over quality education: Matt Hussain's doctoral thesis, 'The Rickshaw Faculty: A nadir of Academic Exploitation,' perfectly captures this trajectory. Faculty is replaced every year as the prospect of promotion or research is bleak; besides, commercialisation also becomes highly prevalent in the classroom as education standards are often lowered to aid students in getting the degree – a paper credential.
This lowering of the standard is especially prevalent in the professional Masters' program where learning is essentially minimal. Sadly, selling that paper credential has become the primary aim of most universities.
This makes the presence of foreign universities crucial to bridge the gap and enable competition: As stated by the UK envoy to Bangladesh in a trade dialogue organised in February this year, several British universities have expressed their concerns about operating in the country. Undoubtedly, this will benefit the students and faculty as it will increase research collaboration, enhance mobility of both groups, and improve teaching and research quality.
More importantly, reputable foreign university campuses will act as key to solve our PhD crisis as very few faculty members in our country have a doctoral degree. We have plenty of professors without a PhD.
Therefore, these reputable universities can attract talent and fill the vacuum of well-qualified Bangladeshis migrating abroad each year. Besides, as we produce well-trained graduates, we can become more reliant on our domestic workforce. This will reduce our reliance on foreign workers in the long run.
Needless to say, we need to ensure that only reputable universities are allowed to operate within the country, as India has mandated. Besides, we need to take other steps to attract top universities: create recreational facilities like parks, sports clubs, swimming pools, and other recreational facilities.
We also need to think of the geographic distribution of these foreign university branch campuses, ensuring that we can attract more investment in the underdeveloped regions. Specifically, the geographic distribution of reputable universities can create employment opportunities in less-developed regions.
Namia Akhtar graduated with a first-class from the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, Germany. She works in the development sector. Find out more on her website: akhtarna.wordpress.com; Email: email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article is the author's personal view and does not represent the view of The Business Standard