“The private universities are dacoits”, so said the Education Minister on August 19, 2014, as reported in banglanews24.com – an online news portal. Later on 10 September 2014 he was reported to have said, “The corrupt private university authorities are thieves and cheats” (translated from the Daily Prothom Alo, 10 September 2014). On the other hand, in an article titled as above published in the Daily Star on 17 August 2014 the Minister termed the recently published research report by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) on private universities as “unrealistic”. The piece was a translated version of his article published in a few Bangla newspapers. It may be recalled that immediately after the TIB report was released he had also called it baseless and asked TIB to “apologise to the nation”.
We humbly beg to differ with the honourable Minister on both counts. Unlike the Minister’s generalizations as quoted above TIB never blamed private universities either as decoits or as chor-batpars (thieves-and-cheats). TIB report specifically recognizes contributions made by the private universities in meeting the increasing demand for higher education, that too in many cases maintaining commendable standard. It also alerts stakeholders about the way some of them are gripped in governance failures and irregularities to an extent that higher education in private sector faces the risk of being converted into a money-making commodity taking advantage of deficits of integrity and collusion of a section of those whose responsibility it is to enforce laws, rules and regulation. One major objective of this research was to play a supportive role to the overall development of private universities. TIB has not only identified challenges of governances in this sector, but also proposed a number of recommendations that the relevant authorities may like to consider rather than resorting to denial syndrome.
In conducting its study TIB applied recognized methods of social science research which leave little scope for questioning objectivity of the findings. Extreme care was taken to ensure quality of data and its validity. Any piece of information unless otherwise internally consistent and externally validated from multiple sources was excluded. Data were gathered from various stakeholders, including 22 private universities, the Education Ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC). In addition to individual and collective interviews of various levels of staff at the Ministry and the UGC who deal with private universities, a consultative workshop was held where they were also invited along with other stakeholders. Furthermore, the UGC provided a written response on various relevant issues pertaining to monitoring and supervision of private universities. Despite TIB’s utmost efforts to ensure that the research methodologically includes the Ministry and the UGC officials in the process of data collection, the honourable Minister’s allegation that “TIB did not feel it necessary to communicate the Ministry or the UGC” is far away from fact and fully unjustifiable.
The honourable Minister wrote that a TIB researcher present in a talk show had claimed TIB “sent a copy of the report to MoE on the very day of its publication. But this is totally false. In fact, someone dropped the copy of the report at the Secretariat gate on July 7 at around 12.45 pm”. In truth, on the evening of July 2, 2014, two days after the report was published, soft copies of the full report were sent through e-mail to the honourable Minister, his PS, APS, the Education Secretary, the UGC chair and the president of the Association of the Private Universities and a bunch of other relevant stakeholders. The following day, on July 3, hard copies of the full report were sent via a messenger to the honourable Minister and the Secretary that were received at around 2:45 pm at the record desk of the Secretariat. The Minister’s claim that "someone dropped the report on July 7" is therefore again contrary to fact. A recording of the said talk show showed, when rechecked, that the TIB researcher was misquoted in the Minister's Op-Ed, and had merely said that the report was sent to the Ministry within the shortest possible time after the release, "within two/three days”. After receiving TIB report through e-mail, the UGC chairman responded by calling the TIB Executive Director on 3 July. It may also be mentioned that the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University Prof. Emajuddin also called him on 1 July 2014 over phone and thanked him for coming up with the report and expressed his view that the existing problems of good governance in the private universities were unacceptable.
Welcoming the honourable Minister’s call to the TIB’s Executive Director to take an “objective” stand through a “review” of the “baseless, and prejudiced” report, TIB wants to ensure that a review had made it clear that the report had been prepared following the international standard of research and its findings therefore are indicative of lack of good governance prevailing in this sector. The honourable Minister’s terming the report as “baseless and prejudiced” had not been tenable. The key messages of the research however carry different meaning to different individuals if it were considered partially or in isolation. TIB study report was prepared in no way to malign the country’s private universities or to indiscriminately undermining the institutions. It was clearly stated that the research findings were not equally applicable to all private universities, the UGC and/or any other stakeholder. Some of the 79 private universities, it must be admitted, offer quality education and maintain standards of good governance. At the same time, there is lack of both in many other institutions as well. It should also be noted that quality education and good governance may not always go hand-in-hand or existence of one doesn’t ensure existence of the other automatically. On June 26, 2014 the Education Ministry placed a report before the relevant Parliamentary Standing Committee in which it identified 24 types of irregularities and corruption existing in private universities. Most of these were similar to what TIB research had found. After publication of the TIB report, the media had published the Education Minister’s statement on the certificate business done by 15 private universities. In his Op-Ed he also admits that there exist “many challenges including irregularities, failures, narrow interest and profiteering attitudes” in some institutions. In a recent speech at a training workshop in Dhaka he also claimed that so far 28 universities, out of 79, have been “disciplined” (http://www.banglanews24.com/beta/fullnews/bn/316199.html, 19 August 2014).
The Education Minister stated that there was no specific information in the report on who was involved in bribery or for that matter in corruption and irregularities. It’s necessary to mention here that there is a fundamental difference between information gathering through research and investigation by police or any such legal entity. In corruption research the usual practice is to pledge for full secrecy of the informant and to take information as much as possible in an impersonal manner. In reference to honorable Minister’s meeting with the private universities, suffice it to say that both giving bribe and taking it are illegal. One can’t be expected admitting involvement in such transaction publicly like in a forum where all the representatives of private universities are officially summoned to answer questions about it. There are however recognized ways to conduct fair and impartial official investigation to reveal identity of those involved in corruption which, needless to mention, lies outside of a researcher’s mandate. The authorities concerned, taking the research findings that outline types, magnitude and depth of corruption into cognizance, can take appropriate measures to conduct such investigation. Unfortunately the way in which the honourable Minister dismissed TIB research is the same as to protecting and supporting those who are responsible for the malpractices.
Although small in number yet, foreign students have started coming to Bangladesh to enroll into private universities. This should be another important reason the government keeps this sector free from corruption and malpractices and maintain the standard of learning. Because only by doing so this sector can be turned contributing more and more to foreign exchange earnings stably in the long run. Rating the private universities through an independent Accreditation Council using some internationally acknowledged system, as recommended in TIB study, can be one effective way to attract more foreign students. It is unfortunate that only the negative findings of TIB report are highlighted. But little attention is being paid to the recommendations for establishing good governance and removing corruption as made in the report. TIB always aim at playing a supportive role in government’s stride for good governance, not to find flaws or create embarrassment. We hope that, in lieu of persistently denying the findings, the 16-point recommendations made by TIB will be duly considered in improving governance in the private universities.
-Rafique Hassan, Director (Research and Policy) and Rezwan-ul-Alam, Director (Outreach and Communication), TIB