Bangladesh's ‘rickshaw faculty’: a nadir of academic exploitation

Recent graduates teach at three to four universities a day to make ends meet, researcher finds during stint observing country’s private HE system

October 12, 2016
Businessman being transported on rickshaw
Source: Alamy
Next stop, second-year stats: demoralised non-permanent faculty teach uncritical ‘zombie’ students, says researcher

If anywhere on earth can be called a dystopia of runaway, unregulated, exploitative private higher education, then Matt Husain, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, claims to have found it.

Husain spent six weeks conducting an ethnographic study of faculty and students in his native Dhaka, in Bangladesh, and what he found makes even the worst cases of academic exploitation in the West look tame in comparison.

In the private universities that have “mushroomed” since the late 1990s, some nine in 10 faculty are on short-term contracts and are typically young, recent MBA or bachelor’s degree graduates looking to make some money before attempting to pursue a PhD in the West, he told Times Higher Education.

Their pay is so poor – about £150 for an entire semester of two or three hours teaching a week – that they have to hop from campus to campus every day to earn enough, he found. Meanwhile, academics with permanent posts – the lucky 10 per cent – earn vastly more.

“I used to take a rickshaw to go to the next university right after I completed my lecture at the previous one. Every day I lectured at least in three to four universities,” one told him, on condition of anonymity.

These “rickshaw faculty”, as Husain calls them, have to jump between classes so rapidly each time that they do not know the names of their students, and teach at 15 to 20 different universities. “I needed the money,” another explained. Classes are so large that there is “no room for interactive learning”, explains Husain.

Lecturers are “almost dehumanised”, Husain says. “They are exploited but they feel they can’t do anything about it.” Demoralised, they take little pride in their work, and moonlight at other institutions.

“If they teach at four universities, that is enough to have a middle-class living – if they live with their parents,” he explains, because they cannot afford to move out.

Behind the clusters of private universities that have sprung up in some areas of the city are powerful families that frequently control not only the institutions themselves but the banks that offer student loans with annual interest rates of about 40 per cent, he says.

Husain’s knowledge of the system is personal, he says, as he went to school in Dhaka with the scions of some of these dynasties.

Adverts for student loans are easy to find on the streets of Dhaka, notes his new paper, “Zombie graduates driven by rickshaw faculty – a qualitative case study: private universities in urban Bangladesh”, published in Policy Futures in Education (“zombie graduates” are so called because Husain thinks they are left with few critical faculties).

“The political elite and their surrogates get the licences for new banks and private universities,” he explains. Gaining permits for universities “depends on who you know in the system”. During his research, he observed university owners arriving at board meetings in flashy BMWs.

Husain, who for six years worked for the World Bank in Washington DC, insists he is not against private universities in themselves – just their unregulated and botched introduction. “I’m not anti-private,” he says. “I’m about bringing quality.”

New private universities in Bangladesh have failed to deliver basic facilities such as libraries that they promised as a condition of their licences, he says, and lack quality standards.

As in other developing countries with a large young population (around a third of Bangladesh’s population is under 15), demand for higher education in the country is huge. Since the turn of the millennium private universities have expanded to help meet that need, according to an analysis by ICEF Monitor, an education market intelligence service.

There are now some 84 private universities, most of which have been set up since 2000, compared with just 31 public universities, it found.

In neighbouring India, although the quality of private higher education remains a subject of controversy and for-profit universities are prohibited, some have argued that private investment is the only way to meet demand by Indian youngsters.

Speaking last December at the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit, Karan Khemka, a partner at the consultancy Parthenon, said the private sector could provide the necessary “good, not great” higher education, although he acknowledged that there would inevitably be “bad apples in the cart”.

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Reader's comments (5)

I am an academic with a British post-graduate degree and I have worked for couple of private universities in Bangladesh as a full-time faculty member. I found your article on private universities in Bangladesh (and the research by Mr. Matt Husain that the article is based on) to be one-sided, biased and flawed. The article (and the research) is very one-sided because it presents a very pessimistic view of the private university sector in Bangladesh, from which it appears that there are only negatives about the sector. I feel this is extremely detrimental for the global image of this sector. The article and the research completely ignore the positive changes and prospects that the private sector has brought for higher education in Bangladesh. The public sector education in Bangladesh has long been plagued by pervasive problems like impacts of politics, bureaucracy, and absence of healthy academic environment. In the early 1990s, private sector gave an alternative platform to many students, who would otherwise choose to go abroad for their higher education. Ever since, private university sector in Bangladesh saw many hurdles in its journey and today it is a very promising force in the growth of Bangladesh’s higher education. However, the promising revolution brought by the private universities have mostly been underestimated and underrepresented. In most cases, the whole sector has been grossly misrepresented in the media by painting it with a broad brush. Unfortunately, when ‘smart intellectuals’ like Mr. Matt Husain hypothesize about these universities, they partially emphasize all the negatives, as if nothing good is being done by them. It is also not acceptable that some people indiscriminately disparage the whole sector, instead of pointing out to the inept monitoring mechanisms, and some crooked institutions that are responsible for defaming the image of this promising sector. Our private universities have achieved some amazing feats over the last couple of decades. For example, many of them have built their own state-of-the-art campuses, with adequate research and academic facilities. Many of these universities have faculty members with globally recognized post-graduate and PhD degrees from top ranked universities in the world. Moreover, many of these universities have numerous student activity programs and specialized clubs to involve students in extracurricular activities like community services, sports, photography, music, debating, drama and a diverse range of cultural programs. Many of these universities also offer a wide range of scholarships to meritorious students. Most importantly, many of these private universities and their schools have achieved international accolades and accreditations (like ACBSP). Academics and schools from most of these universities are actively engaged in research, consulting and community services. Although it is also true that we need to expand our research portfolio more, which requires institutional funding as well as patronization apart from willingness and capacity. I have also seen enormous potentials in students in these universities. I really do not know how Mr. Matt Husain has evaluated the intellectual potential of such a large mass of students and so disgracefully regarded them as ‘zombie graduates’. I don’t know if he has conducted a scientifically objective IQ test of students and compared them to the IQ of students from public institutions or foreign universities. He cannot make such baseless, subjective claims, especially if he doesn’t have any experience of teaching private university students for a sizable amount of time. To be honest, as a teacher who taught at two private universities in the Bangladesh I have seen enormous potentials in students in these universities. Obviously, I am going to back my argument up with some evidences. Alumni from private universities are working successfully in different local and international organizations and many of them have proven to be the leaders in their respective fields. Graduates from private universities in Bangladesh are currently working in banks, telecom firms, media houses, IT firms, NGOs, consulting firms, manufacturing organizations, government firms and all other sectors. And if Mr. Matt Husain is able to broaden his short-sighted, almost blind, ‘zombie-like perspective’, he will be able to see that private university graduates are contributing significantly into the growth and development of these sectors. In that way private universities are developing competent human resources for the emerging economy of Bangladesh. Moreover, I have seen students from these universities winning numerous global awards and competitions on business case solving, debating, computer programming, business plan constructions, sports and community services. It is true that like any other institution in Bangladesh and around the world there are students with different levels of skills and merits in private universities as well. We must understand that there are multifaceted factors behind a student’s lack of certain skills. These factors include weakness in secondary education systems and lack of language trainings from an early age. However, it would be highly unfair to say that it is only the limitation in our private university education system which is responsible for such lacking. I hope Mr. Husain should be a bit more scientific and logical in determining the variables in his research. It is also unfair to use a disparaging term like ‘zombie graduates’ to label all of the students, as this contradicts some of the core principles of academic research by making it biased and stereotypical. I found the terms ‘zombie graduates’ and ‘rickshaw faculty’ to be particularly disgraceful as these terms undermine the achievements and qualifications of a large group of students and faculty, an entire academic community. I also found some factual errors in the article (which refers to the research of Matt Husain). According to the article only ’10 percents of the academics in the private universities have permanent posts’. This information is completely wrong. Here again it seems Mr. Husain is collecting his facts from the world of zombies. A very small proportion of faculties in private universities are part-timers. Most of the universities have a large body of full-time faculty members and according to the rules stated in their job contacts they are prohibited to teach in more than one university. The article also mentions that ‘a faculty member earns 150 British Pounds in a semester’, which also seems to be contradictory because most university teachers do not get paid on a semester-basis. Full-time faculties get monthly salaries, which is much higher than what has been mentioned in the article. The salaries of part time faculties usually vary depending on the institution and number of courses the taught by an individual in a particular semester. The claim also appears to be highly unrealistic that a university lecturer is likely to be teaching at 15-20 universities. It appears Mr. Husain only had super-zombies in his sample frame. At the same time, it’s also not true that all board members and owners of these universities have banking businesses and they are exploiting students by offering high-interest bank loans. It is quite natural that most private sector initiatives are undertaken by wealthy industrialists and financially capable people. However, initiators of these universities come from different sectors, including businessmen, academics, socialites and philanthropists. As far as the allegations on bank loans are concerned, Bangladesh is a country where obtaining a student loan is not very easy and it is also not factual that banks offer student loans at an astoundingly high 40% interest rate. You can check with any commercial bank in Bangladesh about the matter. Most students in the private universities fund their education by themselves, without any student loan, and in many cases they receive merit based scholarships, and hardship funds from the universities based on their academic performance. The truth is like any other sector in Bangladesh, private universities also have their strengths and weaknesses. It takes time for a sector like this to be fully established. However, in order to reach that threshold these institutions need adequate appreciation and patronization by the relevant stakeholders. It is absolutely undeniable that many of these universities have resource shortages, mismanagement, and lack of infrastructure and absence of good governance. However, it will not be fair to compare our private universities with long-established top ranked universities in the developed countries. In his research Mr. Husain should have factored in the economic, political and social realities of Bangladesh to understand the fact that even if a private university in our country wants it may not be able to recruit all PhD holders as faculties or get over all its limitations overnight. The cost of higher education in Bangladesh is comparably low. Our university authorities often struggle to offer a high quality education at an affordable cost. Balancing the quality against cost becomes even more arduous in an unstable political and economic context. Even in many universities in developed countries there are mismanagement and bureaucracies despite their very high costs of education. In the eyes of some people riding on a rickshaw might be a sign of disgrace. Mr. Matt Husain doesn’t seem to understand that ‘rickshaw’ is a part of our country’s cultural heritage and it’s the only affordable vehicle for the middle-income people in Bangladesh. In that regard, he seems to lack cultural intelligence and respect for cultural diversity. Although I think his understanding of the economic and social paradigms of South Asian countries is as primitive as a rickshaw.
Thanks matt for your eexcellent report. This report is true. I am a rickshaw faculty.
I tend to agree with Matt Husain’s assertion that many of the private university lecturer are ‘‘exploited but they feel they can’t do anything about it.” However, I find his associated claims about the quality of education and students is outright fallacious and does not pass the test of academic rigor by any margin. First, making a causal claim of ‘producing uncritical ‘zombie’ student’ by depicting the exploitative nature of the BD’s private HE system and dramatizing it with a pic of a faculty travelling in a rickshaw defies the basic principle of causation (i.e. for the conclusion to be true, the premises must be true). Second, ethnography is a recognized qualitative methods to study social phenomenon provided one is able to address its weaknesses, most notably extended time requirement, reliability, Hawthorne effect, effective collation of diverse data, etc. Husain’s study seems to disqualify on most of these grounds. It is exceptionally rare to arrive at any conclusion on a social phenomenon by six week’s ethnographic study. One of my fellow PhD student applying this method in Palestinians view of terrorism has spent two years in the location and yet his conclusions are tentative and remains seriously challenged. The article also claims that ‘Husain’s knowledge of the system is personal’. This adds additional challenge for Husain and we don’t know how much of his conclusion is a personal reflection in the veil naming a methodology that sounds quite mouthful. Third, the article claims that what he (i.e. Husain) found ‘‘makes even the worst cases of academic exploitation in the West look tame in comparison.’’ This is not only an unsupported but also unnecessary claim that reflects his lack of knowledge. One only needs to watch the Al Jazeera’s investigative reporting ‘‘Shattered Dream’’ to comprehend the level of exploitation in some UK HE institutes. Clearly Hussain did not have the privy to such widely available sources. Fourth, ethnographic study ' produce situated knowledge rather than universals. Thus the findings are inadequate in representativeness and generalisability, two key criteria of validity in sociological research. While Husain might be right in a particular instance of a particular University in BD using a focus group discussion, but the deterministic claim made in his paper is difficult if not impossible to attain by the very method he used. That said, I don’t think Husain’s article is part of any neo-orientalism or a sadist/racist attempt to undermine the BD PU education system or quality. It is a mere academic work with a flawed application of methodology, lacking the causal connections and drawing highly questionable and unsupported conclusions. I hope with better supervisions at the University of Columbia, he will be able to produce papers that can withstand the required academic rigor. However, It will be a different thing if he believes in the mantra like Trump, 'no publicity is a bad publicity'.
I read this supplement by David Mathews and read Matt Husain original paper. I think this is a well written and time piece. I like how Husain provides the historical, cultural, and social perspectives in a post-colonial country and the application of hegemony. The author also repetitively mentions in the original paper that the existing practices in HE in Bangladesh can create Zombies and I agree with him. As a rickshaw faculty alum, I agree with Husain's findings and I admire him for writing the first ever well balanced paper on issues of HE in Bangladesh. Finally, there are few other important findings which we cannot also ignore. “The political elite and their surrogates get the licenses for new banks and private universities,” Husain explains. Gaining permits for universities “depends on who you know in the system”. This is 100% true in the case of Bangladesh. I sense my previous respondent is yet to read the original paper. And that's why became slightly emotional.
Both my husband and I were Rickshaw Faculties in Bangladeshi private universities. Before migrating to Australia, we each taught at 9 to 10 private universities in Dhaka. While we Rickshaw Faculties were treated as dispensable cheap labour, the few permanent faculty members, who in fact were tenured at Dhaka University or elsewhere, came to teach at private universities at fat salaries and used to moonlight at various development agencies while being on ‘lien’ (‘on leave’) from public universities for three years at a time. I like how this fact is highlighted through Matt Husain’s qualitative research. My husband is an Electrical Engineer and I am an Economist and we both read Matt Husain’s original paper and shared it with our South Asian and Australian friends. We are in agreement this paper touches upon issues that are relevant not only in Bangladesh but also respectively in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia. Finally, what I was personally drawn to this paper was it admires the concept of private HE while elaborates on the imbalanced application of economics and philosophy in higher education governance. I have not read such as a well-balanced paper on Bangladeshi HE. Moreover, this paper touches upon the role of Dhaka’s “New Money” or so called local elites who treats HE as a money making opportunity. My husband and I both could not help laughing at the emotional monologues shared by the two respondents in this comments section. Those colonial monologues lack critical assessment to say the least.

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