Encouraging private initiatives


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THE legacy and experience of educational development in different countries varies according to the political background, culture and religion of the people, and economic means and objectives. The first state in the world to institutionalize education for its citizens was Greece. Greek citizens sent their sons to schools upto the age of 14 and attained near total male literacy as early as the 5th century BC.1 The goal was political, to secure a republican form of government through an elitist citizenry. That state has long since gone but its intellectual legacy has remained the heritage of all successive civilizations – among others the Roman, Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

This article explores the prospects of private higher education in Bangladesh which inherited an educational structure hollowed of qualified human resources. Those who progressively filled the vacuum, either as teachers or students, were torn between focusing on the search for knowledge or becoming instant politicians – conflicting values inherited from their association with the freedom movement till 1947, and the Bengali independence movement since.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the higher education base was limited to a few pre-Pakistan period premier colleges and Dhaka University, and from the late ’50s, Rajshahi University. The tradition of searching for knowledge dominated the community of scholars. They prided on their past collaboration with scientists and academicians belonging to top British and American universities. But while the universities in the West moved ahead in knowledge building and technological development, Bangladeshi academics remained mired in the presumed glory of the past. Students who involved themselves with politics during this period were primarily motivated by concerns of ideology or issues of national and cultural identity. ‘A number of first class students who went on to earn distinctions in later life were active in student politics (of the time).’2

Unfortunately, during the post-independence period, the participation of students in politics was indiscriminate; this created an anarchic atmosphere in education, resulting in a steep slide in quality. In all educational institutions, education and politics became synonymous. Today, every political party maintains a student cadre, mainly as campaign workers, to ignite the fire of agitation and bear the brunt of any violent consequences. Hard cash is used to buy loyalty and firearms supplied for their operations. The resulting mix of politics on the campus and the government’s reaction to it has given rise to factionalism and inter-group conflict leading to a serious erosion of academic discipline. Politically engineered acts of violence have often turned campuses into battlefields with a free play of modern firearms. This has claimed the lives of scores of promising youth since liberation.



An increasing number of students are today involved in drugs, women, big money and extortion. Those so involved may well constitute a small number as compared to the vast majority who wish to enrol in colleges and universities to prepare for their future. But because of violence on the campus, classes are postponed, examinations delayed for months and years, and there is a high rate of failure in examinations.3

The present political parties are unlikely to initiate any remedial action with regard to such involvement of students in politics. Though the President of the Republic has repeatedly appealed to political parties to disband their student wings so as to restore academic peace and facilitate uninterrupted pursuit of learning, it has not elicited a positive response. It is virtually impossible for the authorities to reform the curricula, the course system or course duration, set dates for examinations, or even execute contracts of civil works without coming into conflict with student politicians.

During the Pakistan period, it was the bureaucracy which ruled the country. Not surprisingly, the brighter students preferred a career in the civil service, though in every successful batch there were those who did a stint of teaching prior to joining the superior civil service. Also, the recommendations of practically every education commission to raise salaries of teachers and educational administrators to bring them at par with those of the civil service were ignored. The bureaucrats continued to see themselves as superior to their political bosses; they even scuttled attempts at reforming their own service. As a result, over the years, their morals got eroded and many of them became politicized. Possibly, given their high administrative authority, they are disinclined to collaborate and cooperate with civil society.



After Independence, the economy of the country was largely dependent on foreign assistance negotiated by government bureaucrats. Such development assistance normally includes a human resource development component. For a small project, study abroad for one or several persons; for a big project, both that and, often, building of institutions to undertake diverse and specialized training in the country. Unfortunately for the Bangladesh universities, none of these opportunities came their way.

Instead, foreign assistance for training nationals was used for overseas academic training of bureaucrats, graduate and post-graduate training of some nationals abroad, and the establishment of training centres and institutions under the auspices of concerned ministries. A major project after Independence was the establishment of the Public Administration Training Centre (PATC), built adjacent to a new residential university which too began after Independence. But high walls divide them. Planned properly, the project could have strengthened the public administration faculty of at least two or three universities. Instead, the PATC, some 40 kilometres away from Dhaka, has still to find a resident Rector among the cadre of civil servants. Faculty positions of most such centres and institutions have been filled by departmental staff/civil servants with limited competence and inclination for education and research.



The bureaucratic control of higher education and the unwillingness of political parties to disenfranchise their student wings has resulted in seriously eroding public confidence in higher education; the mismatch of public finance has done the same with regard to secondary education in the country. Senior bureaucrats (competent in resource manipulation), wealthy parents and politicians have quietly stopped sending their children to public schools and universities in the country. Since the late 1980s, this class has progressively found other ways to educate its children, viz. through a rapid growth of private English medium tutorial centres following the University of London or the University of Cambridge curricula, a sharp increase in the incidence of private coaching, and a steep rise in tuition fee in the better-known private secondary schools in Dhaka and elsewhere. The focus on learning English is relatively recent; there are only half-a-dozen secondary schools that offer a national curriculum in the English medium.

At the post-secondary level, thousands of students leave the country every year under a variety of arrangements. Undergraduate study abroad is an entirely new phenomenon for which the English medium tutorial centres provide the major backward links. Hundreds of students are sent abroad, mainly to the United States or India, by their guardians. Much of this involves private transfer of funds from rich relatives. The expenses are justified against the prospects of future employment and migration.



Given these facts, one could argue that the elite and upper middle class have virtually privatized education for their needs. Much more private money is now spent on education, though the government too has been increasing its education budget every year. Yet, the latest budgetary allocation (though the highest among the social sectors), is less than 3% of GDP. Further, the increased per capita expense on education cannot ensure quality education at any level, partly because nearly 90% of the budget goes towards meeting teachers’ salary and maintenance costs.

Despite all the above mentioned handicaps, Bangladesh has achieved important and significant progress in its democratic evolution and in the fields of social, economic and human resource development. The country has successfully instituted fair elections and witnessed a ‘peaceful’ succession of governments. It has achieved a rapid decline in the rates of population growth. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased nearly three-fold in the last two decades. It has developed noteworthy expertise in disaster management, a problem endemic to the region. The country has attained the highest employment rate for women (mainly in readymade garments and the construction industry) in South Asia. During the past decade, stipends provided for the education of the girl child have led to gender parity for girls in primary education, and progressively in secondary education.

Specifically in the field of education, several non-governmental organizations led by the Bangladesh Rural Action Committee (BRAC) have provided a back-up, as well as complimentary non-formal primary education (though at about 10 times higher cost; 1997 estimates) through nearly 40,000 units spread across the country. More recently, the government has committed to providing free education and food supplements to girl students upto the secondary tier. It is currently considering raising the minimum education level for the country to class VIII level.

More attention is being paid to job oriented and vocational training for youth, with programmes conducted under both government and non-governmental sponsorship. The government has now introduced a new vocational curriculum in secondary schools, making use of facilities previously created in vocational institutes that had not functioned well on their own. These are some of the right priorities.



In line with these new developments and priorities to restore quality to secondary and higher education, the government needs to adopt a multipronged approach for planning and implementation, ensure the participation of both non-governmental and private sectors, and reprioritize funding where private finances are hard to come by. The budget allocations for teacher training, vocational and technical education need to be increased but with limits set on infrastructure and personnel costs.

Both the Sargent Report (1944) and the first Bangladesh Commission Report (1975) had recommended that the administrative costs should not exceed 5% of programme costs. The government would be well advised to evaluate subsidies to schools/madrasas and colleges; it should re-introduce both the auditing and evaluation of performance of all institutions as a precondition for receiving public grants and subsidies. To widen the educational base, it should consider supporting the growth of a third non-profit sector to complement the public and for profit (business) sectors economies.



At the moment only the public and private (for profit) sector are active in secondary education, while higher education is being forced into generating profits for survival. As in other South Asian countries, the role of the private sector in both the secondary and higher education sector is a sensitive political issue. Though the dominant view continues to be that an economic yardstick should not be applied to measure the worth of education, there is a marked lack of understanding about the costs of good education. Also, those who ideologically favour central planning and public intervention in institutional development are inept about measures to encourage entrepreneurship in education, whether for profit or non-profit.

Bangladesh is encumbered with a large population with a density 32 times that of the United States. It faces an enormous task of developing its human resources. An eminent economist, with decades of experience in economic planning, recently remarked that ‘more than capital and natural resources, knowledge has emerged as the most important factor of production.’4 Perhaps, the only option is to develop a partnership with civil society and encourage non-profit investment in the educational development of the country.

Policymakers and administrators should refer to history and note that education in the subcontinent had in the main been private and philanthropic. It was poverty and bad management that progressively led to the nationalization of education in Bangladesh. However, the fact that at least a part of secondary education is private, about half a dozen private universities operate in the country, and that thousands of students currently study in India and the West, demonstrates that private education is back with a vengeance, accounting for a large part of private expenditure. The half-a-dozen private universities together have an annual turnover of over $10 million. This new money is entirely generated locally, educates approximately 6000 students annually, and provides jobs to several hundred faculty members and an equal or a larger number of staff.



The private university is a proven alternative and provides a new avenue for higher education all over the world. In the United Kingdom, after the establishment of Buckingham University as the first private university, most public universities diversified their sources of revenue, incorporating finances from business and industry, and thereby experienced a great advancement. The pioneers were the relatively lesser known universities or previous technical schools that were raised to university status in the ’60s. The list now includes Oxford.

For Bangladesh, this can become an alternative strategy of higher education. A well-funded and professionally managed private university can provide flexible options of forging global linkages, both for students and institutions, and impart the highest quality education at home.

Besides, it can (i) share with the public sector responsibility for providing education with a programme diversity that suits market needs; (ii) share the sector cost by generating new resources through non-profit private funding; (iii) save foreign exchange, if not earn it, by admitting international students; (iv) be more flexible in designing curricula and syllabi to suit the job market in the country and abroad; (v) being dependent on product value (i.e. graduates), it is more likely to experiment with teaching methods and application of technology; (vi) provide a channel for the return of expatriate scholars for short or long term association (a reversal of the ‘brain drain’); (vii) culturally equip adolescents forced to live abroad and thereby reduce resultant emotional strain on families; and (viii) catalyze reforms in public universities.

However, private universities cannot thrive without radical cultural reorientation and the development of a clear understanding, at least among the leadership, about the differences between a secondary school and a university. The core difference between the two is that while the former imparts skills for socialization (the curriculum packages knowledge and information for the acculturation of the youth), the latter places emphasis on knowledge building through research and innovation.



Schools and colleges have historically been profitable enterprises, including in Bangladesh. But in the case of a university, the collection of tuition fee may not meet even half of the annual budget requirements. Across the board, students find it difficult to pay the full cost of higher education. Consequently, expenditure on the university must be viewed as an investment for the future growth of society, and the fiscal burden shared by the entire community.


Both private sponsors and government need to be fully aware of the economics of higher education and its impact on total societal development. The private universities in Bangladesh will probably degenerate to the level of a college, become another tutorial shop, unless they can find resources other than tuition fees to fund academic and physical development. The government would do well to not only repeal the 1992 tax order, but encourage the creation of funds and foundations by granting differential tax relief and concessions. It should provide matching funds for the promotion of national projects like science education, library development, and advances in communication technology. Fortunately, the climate for all this is improving.



1. Plato advocated the state system of education in order to ensure proper education for the youth and to spare them from becoming victims to the whims or wealth of their parents. He emphasized the setting up of public schools with trained teachers who he thought would be better suited than fathers to rear successive generations for the future of the republic. E.B. Castle, ‘Ancient Education and Today’, in Ingermar Fagerlind and Lawrance J. Shaw, Education and National Development: A Comparative Perspective, 2nd Edition, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1989, p. 35.

2. Rehman Sobhan, Fourth Convocation Address, Independent University, Bangladesh, 3 June 2000.

3. In one year, 1983, thirty-three colleges failed to graduate a single candidate (Ministry of Education, internal memo dated 10 March 1984).

4. Nurul Islam, Third Convocation Address, Independent University, Bangladesh, 13 June 1999.



A.F.S. Ahmed, Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal 1818-1835, E.J. Brill, Leiden, Holland, 1965.

Ingerman Fagarlind and Lawrance J. Shaw, Education and National Development: A Comparative Perspective, 2nd Edition, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1989.

Enamul Haq (ed.), Shaping the Future: The Story of Independent University, Bangladesh, Independent University, Bangladesh, 1997.

M.N. Haq, Management of Education (a review of some past education reports), Ministry of Education, Dhaka, 1983.

Mahbub ul Haq and Khadija Haq, Human Development in South Asia 1998, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1998.

Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, Human Development Report 1999, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1999.

A. Majeed Khan, Independent University: An Alternative Strategy of Higher Education in Bangladesh, Independent University College, Bangladesh, February 1991.

A. Majeed Khan, Quality education: a pre-requisite for building a civil society. Commencement address, Maastricht School of Management, the Netherlands, 1997.

Theodore W. Schultz, The Economic Value of Education, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963.

UNESCO, Thinkers on Education (four volumes), Paris, 1998.