In March, the formidable Bangladeshi anti-poverty campaigner Sir Fazle Hasan Abed delivered a searing keynote speech at a conference on “assembly in higher education” at the University of Dhaka.
Sir Fazle, who founded the international development charity BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organisation, identified several key issues holding back Bangladesh’s university system. Overcrowded classrooms, outdated courses and a failure to invest in developing lecturers’ teaching skills were rightly pinpointed. So, too, was the overheated nature of student politics, which has sometimes spilled over into political violence on campus.
One important challenge missing from his speech, however, was the lack of job security for teachers at Bangladesh’s private universities. This has a corrosive effect: it demoralises lecturers, leading them to regard teaching as a temporary job. This inevitably affects the quality of their classes to the detriment of students.
Unlike those at public universities, academics in the private sector cannot join academic unions – known in Bangladesh as teachers’ associations – so they find it impossible to speak out effectively against injustice, difficult to defend their academic freedom and tough to bargain with university employers over pay and conditions. Only Stamford University Bangladesh, established in Dhaka in 2002 and nothing to do with its US near-namesake, has allowed its faculty members to run such an association.
The plight of academics in the private sector was illustrated by an incident in July last year at BRAC University, an institution founded by Sir Fazle in 2001. The sudden sacking of a law lecturer on a 12-month contract and his alleged manhandling by three senior staff members, including the registrar, prompted hundreds of students and alumni to take to the Dhaka streets to demand his reinstatement. After five days of agitation, the students got their wish. Although some of the academic’s colleagues participated in the protests, the lack of a teachers’ association prevented them from taking further measures to demand his reinstatement, such as industrial action.
Teachers at most private universities also lack other benefits enjoyed by staff at public universities, such as health insurance, pension schemes, holiday pay and funds to support research and scholarship – the latter inflicting long-term damage on careers, as well as undermining these institutions’ academic reputations.
Recently, 12 teachers from the private Southeast University in Dhaka lost their jobs. Two of them told me that they were in shock and despair because no reason had been provided. They were honourable teachers who were liked by their students, but they were given no chance to defend themselves.
Such untoward incidents are able to happen because most private institutions in Bangladesh lack proper statutes and rules about staff terms and conditions. It suits their management to avoid clearly defining how teachers are recruited, promoted and dismissed; some institutions are even reluctant to comply with the basic governance requirements directed by the Private University Act, passed in 2010.
As a result, some universities recruit newly minted graduates for entry-level lecturer posts on one-year contracts, subject to renewal. The influx of these lecturers undermines the job security and conditions of existing staff, projecting a message that anyone who objects to low pay and poor facilities will be replaced by one of these newcomers.
Career growth at private universities is further damaged by their habit of hiring star professors from public universities, rather than promoting from within those who are serious about their careers. This is a predictable consequence of institutions where teachers’ voices are not heard when it comes to job security and faculty self-governance.
Moves to reform Bangladesh’s university system are under way, and it is high time. The country’s first private university was founded 26 years ago, and there are now more than 100 of them. They must be made to adopt basic governance rules and well-defined terms and conditions for those who should be the beating heart of any educational institution. Without a supportive academic environment, academic staff will inevitably leave – and students will suffer in the long run.
Sheikh Nahid Neazy (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the department of English at Stamford University Bangladesh, a private university in Dhaka.