The alternative to the autonomy of the universities is not partial autonomy
The autonomy of universities is the result of the mass student movement in 1969. The implementation of the demands of that movement started with the University Act 1973 which is also known as the Ordinance of '73. There were six universities in the country at that time – four general and two specialised.
There were no private universities then as the education system had yet to be commercialised. Today we can divide universities into three categories – public, private and international. Public universities are run using government funding, private universities by private entities and international organisations fund international universities.
Currently, the country has 42 public universities run with government money along with a large number of private universities. The image of the 42 public universities has deteriorated for many different reasons.
In the early nineties, the reign of factionalism started to be rooted in these universities after the fall of military dictator Ershad. The teachers and administration of the universities were divided between Awami League, BNP and Jamayat. From other employees to teachers everyone took factionalism as a means to grab illegal facilities. The evil practice of factionalism and dynastic politics cast their shadow over everything from the appointment of the vice-chancellor to that of a lower grade employee.
In many cases, the vice-chancellors and influential teachers appointed unqualified children as teachers. As a result, a student with a gold medal did not get an appointment as a teacher in the Department of Law of Rajshahi University.
In most cases, the recommendations of the department were neglected. More employees were appointed than needed due to factionalism. The practices of factionalism and favouritism were done for years by using the autonomy of the universities as a shield. The misuse of this autonomy has tarnished democratic values. Senate elections are not held in any university of the country. Even newly-established universities do not have a senate system. The syndicate is formed by the will of the vice-chancellor and the vice-chancellor panel is not formed by the syndicate.
The Honourable Chancellor appoints the vice-chancellor based on reports from bureaucrats and detectives. The advice of the prime minister and the political motivation of the governing party also play a role here. The education, wisdom and administrative skills of the vice-chancellor do not play any role here.
The six pre-independence universities have nothing in common with the recruitment or promotion system of their teachers and staff. Separate laws were imposed for the four universities, which were established by the Ordinance of 1973.
In this regard, Rajshahi University, the second oldest university in the country, has come under public discussion the most. This university was chosen to rehabilitate persons who opposed Bangladesh's independence. After the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975, Dr Abdul Bari, who was against the independence of the country, was appointed vice-chancellor in June 1977 by the then-military government.
The next incident happened during the military rule of Ershad in 1982. The university created its teacher promotion policy. As a result, the university has the largest number of professors. Of the more than one thousand teachers currently employed, six hundred are professors.
No university in the world, including Dhaka University – the oldest university of the country – has created so many professors. Rajshahi University is at the forefront in terms of the ratio of students to teachers and professors. There are many examples of more teachers being recruited to this university than the number of posts announced.
The university recruited more than 500 staff members in 2005-06 based on factionalism, which was suspended after several movements. However, nowadays, the same recruitment policy has become common practice. The institution has earned a reputation as the workplace of relatives of political leaders in Rajshahi city.
Dr Abdul Bari introduced a quota system in the university for the admission of his child who passed with third division results in the secondary and higher secondary examinations. There was a provision of having second division results in that time to gain admission in the university. That quota system is still active in many ways.
It is said that the previous government to the present government had increased the age limit of the High Court judges for political purposes. It was done in 2006 keeping in mind a provision regarding the caretaker government. The age limit for teachers in autonomous universities was also increased in line with that. A fancy rule has also been introduced for retirement, which is called session retirement.
According to this rule, if a teacher of Dhaka and Rajshahi University reaches 65 years of age in August, his or her retirement date will be fixed for June 30 of the following year. No other profession in the world seems to have a provision like this. It is an abuse of autonomy.
Almost everyone is made a professor during the time of their retirement. It takes 16 years – 12 years if the candidate has a PhD – to be a professor at Rajshahi University. The research that is needed does not mention any specific level of quality. As a result, any written document published anywhere is considered a research paper. The value of the research paper is determined by the impact factor of the published journal. But in the policies regarding promotion, there is no mention of the impact factor, so the value of the research paper is not considered.
The universities have an unwritten provision of "generational employment." The children of influential teachers and political leaders get the opportunity to become teachers. Their qualifications are questionable. There is an allegation that the vice-chancellor has appointed his daughter and son-in-law as teachers despite being at the bottom of the merit list.
Many of these children of teachers and influential people have been appointed teachers of the university despite having third class results. The issue of "generational employment" is not limited to teachers. It is also visible everywhere from employees to the imam of the mosque.
The policy that governed the country's universities before independence was known as a black law. The law was repealed in 1973 and a new policy for the management of the universities was enacted, known as the Ordinance of 1973. University students and teachers played a big role in preparing the ground for the liberation struggle of Bangladesh.
Despite the debate over whether the changes that were made in the laws in 1973 paved the way for full autonomy of the universities, it could be said that the new laws were positive.
In the post-independence period, there was hope among the people that democracy, justice and equality would be established in the new state and society. They hoped that the universities would also become centres of free-thinking and become more democratic. But in reality, the opposite has happened. The military rulers tried to undermine the power of the universities.
The current status of the Ordinance (Act) could be reviewed to see its present state. The 1973 Act does not apply to all universities in Bangladesh. It is applicable especially: for Dhaka University (DU), Rajshahi University (RU), Jahangirnagar University (JU), and Chattogram University (CU). While the Ordinance is effective in electing deans of faculties and appointing departmental heads, its function in appointing vice-chancellors at universities has become almost obsolete.
Dr Abdul Khaleque, former vice-chancellor of Rajshahi University, wrote in an article, "…we have to remember that the most talented persons of the country are involved in the teaching profession in universities. Many teachers have the talent and experience to be vice-chancellor. It is normal to have the ambition of being a vice-chancellor for an experienced teacher. If one teacher is made vice-chancellor more than once by excluding others it could disappoint them."
"The government should have an eye on this. Recently, the rate of re-appointing vice-chancellors has increased. It is hurting the expectations of experienced teachers. The government must understand the situation. If the situation continues it will increase depression among experienced senior teachers and it will hamper the overall education of the universities," the article reads.
There is a rule in the 1973 Act that the vice-chancellor be elected through the senate. However, this rule has become almost invalid. According to the rules, the vice-chancellor should be elected by the senate every four years. The last election of vice-chancellor of Rajshahi University through the senate was held in 1999. The vice-chancellor's panel was formed in the last senate election in 1999 but has not been implemented. Therefore, it can be said that the practice of electing a vice-chancellor through the senate is currently invalid in Rajshahi and at other universities.
In 2012, Bangla News 24 wrote in a report that four VCs of DU, RU, JU, and CU were illegal. The report said the VCs had been appointed only for party consideration violating Section 11 (2) of the University '73 Act. In the context of Rajshahi, I would like to say that a professor of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering was appointed as the vice-chancellor on 24 February 2009. The appointment letter stated that the appointment would be effective until a vice-chancellor is appointed or re-appointed by a panel of three elected by the senate. He remains in office.
The professor served as the convener of the pro-Awami and progressive Teachers' Association from 2006 to 2008.
Teachers and students from these four universities alleged that these partisan vice-chancellors try to please the government to secure their posts. They halt different movements of the general students in demand for fulfilling their rights with the help of the cadres of the governing party's student wing. They are also reluctant to hold student union elections. The teachers are divided between different colours: red, blue, white, pink, violet. There are allegations of factionalism against almost all the teachers.
The university teachers divide themselves into two sides after getting an appointment. One of the sides is involved in politics and takes part in all the elections of the university. There is an unwritten rule that to be considered as a vice-chancellor candidate one has to be elected the president or secretary of the teachers' association at least twice. The main crisis of the four universities under the Ordinance of 1973 is here.
On 25 April 2020, a unified policy regarding the appointment and promotion of teachers was passed at the 146th meeting of Bangladesh University Grant Commission (UGC). The introduction of the policy said the quality of education in different universities of the country is not equal. The policy was granted to eliminate this inequality.
Of course, we need to eliminate every kind of inequality. But we cannot forget that the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu provided autonomy for the public universities in 1973. According to this autonomy, all the responsibility to adopt policy according to the specific reality of a university belongs to the academic council, syndicate and senate of that university. We have to question whether the UGC is against the main principle of the Ordinance of 1973.
The UGC and the autonomy of universities granted in 1973 must not lock horns. The alternative to the autonomy of the universities is not partial autonomy. Only full implementation of the 1973 Act can solve the current disorganisation and crisis in universities.
Monwarul Huq is a political analyst