Bangladesh’s private universities are exploiting Covid to cut salaries

Legislation is urgently needed to ensure good governance and fair pay and conditions, says Nahid Neazy

January 17, 2021
Covid-19 on the Bangladesh flag
Source: iStock

It has been more than nine months since academic institutions in Bangladesh were ordered by the government to close to restrict the spread of Covid-19.

Even as most offices and businesses across the country were reopened last summer, higher education remained online-only. The spring semester is also going to be virtual when it finally begins later this month, after weeks of government-imposed delay.

All this uncertainty is hitting Bangladeshi academics hard. Students do not relish the prospect of online instruction, so admissions have fallen. In addition, it has been harder to collect fees as students’ and parents’ incomes have dried up amid a severe recession. And while the faculty of public universities do not have to worry about where their salaries will come from, it is a very different story for those at the country’s 105 private universities (of which 95 are functional).

Lacking financial transparency and good governance, private universities are not always reliable employers at the best of times. Now, many are sacking staff or cutting their salaries by 50 per cent or more. Sometimes this is unavoidable; most private universities rely heavily on tuition fees for their revenue. But many are financially strong and are merely using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to make savings on staff costs. Meanwhile, even those private-sector academics who have so far retained their full salaries live in fear of unemployment.

This treatment is particularly unjustified given the huge efforts that Bangladesh’s academics are making to provide their students with a high-quality online education during a pandemic. I accept that financial reserves last for only so long, but universities can seek extra help from banks or, better still, philanthropical industrialists.

That said, poor-quality institutions without reserves should be allowed to exit the market. Their assets could then be sold by the government and redistributed to the rest of the private sector via some kind of public-private partnership agreement.

At the same time, the government should reform the Private University Act 2010 to better hold private institutions to account and to reflect the fact that a university is for its students and academics, not for the enrichment of the family that established it and, therefore, claims (falsely) to own it.

To that end, the reformed act should require private universities to be run by leaders who faithfully implement the decisions of their institution’s academic council and senate (known in Bangladesh as the syndicate). Of course, there is also a key role for the board of trustees. They deserve respect because they contribute to society by making higher education accessible to more than 360,000 students in the private sector, and they should be rewarded for ensuring that their universities are financially strong and sustainable. However, boards should be required to contain at least three renowned educationalists, and the number of people from a single family should be limited to two or three. Board members should also be legally restrained from interfering in day-to-day academic affairs or taking any full-time academic positions at the university.

Finance committees should contain a renowned external educationalist (nominated by Bangladeshi higher education’s regulatory body, the University Grants Commission), as well as three full-time faculty members nominated by the university’s academic union (whose legitimacy should also be enshrined in law).

On employment, clauses should be introduced into the act to ensure fair pay and benefits, protect job security and provide adequate pensions and the payment of compensation after any justified dismissal. Every private university must be obliged to keep substantial reserves and to use its income exclusively for academic activities or capital projects. Good financial management could be encouraged by requiring the online publication of annual accounts.

Crucially, anyone responsible for the misappropriation of university funding, be they trustees, academics or administrators, should be held accountable. Any such allegations – and there have been many reported in the press – should be investigated by the UGC.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the lax regulations by which Bangladesh’s private universities are currently bound. But if it jolts the government into enacting such reforms, then the suffering of academics will not have been in vain.

Sheikh Nahid Neazy is associate professor and chair of the department of English at Stamford University, Bangladesh. He can be reached at nahidneazy@yahoo.com.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Cruel operators

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