Higher Education in the 21st. Century Bangladesh



The UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, held in Paris in 1998, recognized quite emphatically the importance of education and particularlyly higher education for sustainable endogenous development, for democracy and peace, for strengthening  defense of peace as one of the  human values, and for the respect and protection of human rights and fundamental freedom. The far reaching changes now taking place in the world and the entry of human values into a society based on knowledge and information, reveal how overwhelmingly important education and higher education are.( UNESCO 2001, p.1). A renewal of higher education is essential for the whole society to be able to face up to the challenges of the twenty-first century and  to ensure its intellectual independence. Quality higher education needs to be restored  to create and advance knowledge, educate and train responsible, enlightened citizens and qualified specialists, without whom no nation can progress economically, socially, culturally or politically.

The Global scenario of socio-economic development is changing while knowledge supplants physical capital as the source of present (and future) wealth. Technology is the driving force behind  this process. Information technology, biotechnology and other innovations are leading to remarkable  changes in the way we like to work.

As knowledge becomes increasingly important, so does higher education. Countries need to educate more of their young people to reach a global standard. The quality of

knowledge generated within higher educational institutions and its accountability to the wider economy is becoming increasingly critical for national competitiveness. This poses a serious challenge to the countries of the developing world like Bangladesh many of whom are undergoing a rapid transformation in all fronts, and are keenly striving to become a member of the global community of modern nations.

Objectives of the Paper:

A)    Trace the evolution of different facets of institutional systems of higher education in Bangladesh.

B)    Find out the governance, management and administrative problems of higher education.

C)    Suggest areas of action that need immediate attention.


A)    Use of secondary published sources

B)    Interview of persons involved in planning and updating higher education.

The evolution of higher education system in Bengal:

The English developed a system of higher education in colonial India offered through the colleges which basically created only writers or ‘munshis‘ as they were commonly known. Their skill revolved around record and accounts keeping and drafting of documents. Till the early nineteenth   century the emphasis was on the learning of Persian language in most of the schools and colleges as the official language of governance was Persian. As more English speaking Company servants arrived from England, Persian, the official language began to loose importance. This was when the Calcutta Hindu College (1816) was established. This was the first Asian College established to impart western education on the ‘natives’. The establishment of Calcutta Hindu College not only ushered in the western system of education in Bengal but was also one of the first steps taken to impart modern education in this part of the sub-continent.  However, the declared policy of the East India Company when it came to education was to create a class of loyal servants to work in offices of the English rulers. In 1835 the Chairman of the Education Committee of the East India Company Thomas Rabington Mackle while delivering on the objective of adopting English as a medium of instruction in some schools emphatically said ‘the objective was to create a class of people Indian in blood and color but English in taste, in opinions, in mind and in intellect.’ (Sharfuddin 1996, p.6)Towards the beginning of the nineteenth century the Jesuit priests also played a very important role in the  transformation of the education system in India.  Schools established by Christian missions started to emerge in different parts of India. Initially they catered to the education needs of Christian converts, where teaching of the Bible was given a priority. One thing must be remembered  here: that the dividend from these developments were rather enjoyed more by the Bengalis of the western part of Bengal than those from the east and the irony was that it was the Hindus who took advantage of the availability of Hindu College. Muslims unfortunately shied away from western or higher education and held on to the traditional religious schools and madrasas (discussed later).

The history of modern higher education in Bangladesh may be traced back to the establishment of Dhaka University in 1921. The establishment of Dhaka University was considered an imperial concession made to appease the adverse  feelings of the Muslim middle class of East Bengal following the annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1911, which resulted from the movement of protest  led by the more privileged Hindu Community. Quite a few post secondary schools and  colleges existed before the establishment of Dhaka University. However, entry and education in these schools and  colleges were often limited to  middle class or the upper middle class children while children from lower income or  lower middle class backgrounds  often could not enter the educational institutions imparting  even basic primary education. Parents and guardians  either could not afford to send their children to school or thought it more wise  to engage their children in helping them in their profession, mostly as agricultural  laborers.   Practically all schools were established by the wealthy ‘zemindars‘ (the land owners) and were founded  on religious practices. Lessons on the matters relating to religious belief, mostly Hinduism and Islam were given priority.  There were schools of other faiths as well, though their number would be much less. The teaching method encouraged memorizing and there were no room for creative learning or thinking.

The Sepoy Mutiny (the first Indian War of Independence) is seen as a turning point in Indian social history. After the mutiny was suppressed the governance of India passed from the Company to the Crown. The new English government in India thought wisely that to avoid incidences like the mutiny of the sepoys there has to be more meaningful integration of the white  ruling class  with the people of India. They believed the separation of the general people from the rulers should be narrowed and institutional facilities should be provided to the people in different spheres of their life, education being an important one. In 1857 the University of Calcutta along with those in Bombay and Madras were established with London University as the model. In those days London University only conducted examinations. Before the establishment of Calcutta University there were a few intermediate colleges in East Bengal. Later most of such colleges were upgraded as degree colleges and affiliated with  Calcutta University, viz; Chittagong College in 1869, BM College in Barisal in 1884, Sylhet MC College in 1892. When the partition of India took place in 1947 practically all major districts of Bengal had a  higher secondary school and college and side by side with other  religious schools.

Independent Bangladesh

When Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971, the country had four general universities (Dhaka, Rajshahi, Jahangir Nagar and Chittagong) and two specialized universities ( Bangladesh University of Science and Technology-BUET, and Bangladesh Agricultural University-BAU).

Today Bangladesh has 25 public universities where 12,41,352 regular students study at different levels from undergraduate to post-graduate. This includes those studying in 1175 affiliated colleges ( 8,55,744) under the National University. (UGC. 2006. p 130).  There are also 51 professional Colleges (Medical, Dental, Law, Polytechnic  etc) where 82,000 students study. (GOB, Statistical Pocket Book. 2006)

To enter a university or a degree college one has to complete 12 years of high school studies. Entry into all public universities is highly competitive and the ratio of intake to admission seekers is 1:65.  Very often the students do not get the subject of their choice. The curricula of the public universities spread over basic science, humanities, engineering, agriculture and social sciences. The medium of instruction is usually bilingual-Bangla and English. Education in the public universities of Bangladesh is heavily subsidized. The entire development budget and approximately 90 percent of the recurring budget of public universities comes from the government exchequer. On an average, recurring  expenses in public universities are Taka 37,000 per student per year and the total collection from fees and charges per student per year is less than Taka 1000 ( UGC, 2006, p.131). However budged allocation for public universities is grossly inadequate. All public universities operate from their own campuses, built on land allocated by the government, utilities are highly subsidized and salaries of teaching and non teaching staff are relatively low. No taxes are levied on them and the salaries paid to all types of employees are tax free.

Plan of study at public universities and colleges:

The general public universities and colleges receive students from four streams of high school  sources. They are a) Humanities b) Science c) Commerce d) Madrasa system.  A student passing from humanities and commerce can take undergraduate course in the subjects relating to  humanities and commerce. A science graduate can enter undergraduate studies in any subject. In colleges affiliated to National University the students at the entry level normally faces less competition than they would experience in the public universities. Again the intensity of competition between the public and private colleges  differs. However, the quality of education in almost all of the affiliated colleges are far low from the desired level, the primary problem being the absence of qualified teachers and infrastructural support. The financial benefits currently offered to teachers, whether in colleges or public universities are far from satisfactory.

Most of the specialized universities or colleges only cater to the needs of science students excepting few like Home Economics, Fine Arts, Fashion Design and Leather Technology and Textile Engineering.

The emergence of private universities:

A recent addition to the higher  education system in Bangladesh is the emergence of the private universities. Although private universities existed in other countries for long, the first private university in Bangladesh did not make its appearance till 1992. A law titled ‘Private University Act of Bangladesh’ was passed in the National Parliament in 1992 and the first private university of the country, the North South University, started functioning in the same year. Today the country has 56 such private universities where approximately 1,24,267 students pursue their studies in subjects ranging from business to fashion design and media studies.

The promoters of private universities in Bangladesh can be classified into six broad categories:

a)      Retired bureaucrats

b)      Successful businessmen

c)      Senior academicians

d)     Active/retired politicians

e)      NGOs

f)       Combination of  some of the above.

There are private universities of another category operating in Bangladesh: they are the Bangladesh campuses of some low profile overseas private universities and colleges.

The creation of private universities can be thought of as the outcome of the trend of growing number of students leaving the country in the eighties. The primary reasons were the inability of the public universities in providing enough seats to admission seekers and the frequent political unrest and campus problems resulting in unscheduled closure of universities which prolonged academic sessions. Not only did university level students leave the country for higher education, there were also thousands of school going children who were admitted to schools in  neighboring India, Singapore and Thailand.

Education in private universities is expensive as these universities do not receive any financial support from the government but are heavily taxed. They have to bear the entire recurring and development expenditure from  the fees received  from the students. The courses offered in practically all private universities are job focused as  learners would like to have some sort of assurance that they will be able to recover their  high educational expenses once they graduates from a private university.

Objectives and clientele of private universities:

As mentioned earlier though in public universities the subjects studied were quite varied and diverse, most of the enrollment in private universities are still in the area of business studies. A business graduate is expected to be offered a  job before  most other graduates. This is not unusual. Even in the US the  most popular undergraduate major is still business (90 percent), education (8 percent) and health care (7 per cent). These are all job focused education and university education in the US is expensive. (Lind 2006, p.4).

In the neighboring India there are 1600 universities, institutes and colleges whose main area of education and research is business. Most of these institutions are in the private sector and fees  in these institutions is considerably high. The degree offered by business schools in the private universities of Bangladesh happens to be bread-winner for most private universities. As previously mentioned education in private universities is expensive and  costs are not subsidized by government. The universities have to bear the entire recurring and development expenditure out of the fees realized from the students. In many countries, especially in the US, private Universities receive substantial amount of endowment funding from private benefactors, corporate house and alumni. The 20 richest universities in the US (Harvard, Berkley, MIT etc) both private and public, have endowment that collectively amount to almost $ 200 billion (Clausen 2006, p.1). Such practices are practically non-existent in Bangladesh. Sources of funding other than students fees have yet to be explored in most private universities.

Besides business the other courses offered by the private universities usually includes computer science, telecommunication, engineering, law, pharmacy, architecture, English and development studies. One university offers degrees in medicine while two others in creative arts, fashion and media studies. One university besides offering the usual courses also offers courses in Islamic theology.

Recruitment, development and retention of faculty members:

The recruitment of faculty members in institutions of higher learning in Bangladesh comes in many forms and shapes. The private colleges usually recruits their teaching staff either through advertisements or other informal means. Recruitment in public colleges is done through the Public Service Commission and is competitive. The public universities have their recruitment policies laid down by the statutes and are also very competitive, especially at the entry level. Though academic performance usually is given preference over other issues deviations are not rare. This happens usually to accommodate ‘political’ candidates. In private universities there is no uniform recruitment policy. Almost without exception all senior level positions are filled in by teachers from public universities. For some universities their experience has been invaluable for these private universities. Some have tried recruitment of senior teachers from non resident Bangladeshis or even foreigners. Normally the senior level positions in many of the private universities carry high financial benefit. This has caused quite a high turnover in some public universities especially in subjects like business, economics, English, pharmacy, mathematics, architecture, law and computer sciences. At the entry level there is no standard procedure for recruitment in public universities. Some practices recruitment through public advertisements and formal interviews and presentation, other recruits just through negotiation. Though the teachers who gets recruited through Public Service Commission gets some sort of training after they have completed two to three years of teaching, there is no laid down policy for training and development of teachers either in the public or private universities. Whatever development happens to a teacher at the university level, especially in public universities, this happens through availability of   local and international scholarships (UGC, Commonwealth, Ausaid. Ford Foundation, ICSSR etc.) for pursuing higher degrees. For the teachers in the private colleges training and development is practically non existent.

The problem of availability of proper qualified and experienced faculty members is becoming extremely acute, both in the public and private universities. This is simply the issue of demand and supply. Bright graduates are not inspired to enter the teaching

profession especially in the public universities, primarily because the financial benefit are too meager. In case of private universities the problem is different. Most of the founders of private universities do not have first hand practical experience about the running of an educational institution like a university.  They are unable to comprehend the real life scenario of this sector. Some try to run their universities as government offices, others as their another business concern or another NGO outfit. Some have tried to enforce 9-5 office hours. The attrition rate of faculty members in private universities is high. This is in part because in many private universities the overall work environment is not attractive due to unwise and impractical  management decision and practices.

Management issues:

(a)    Public Universities: Public universities are managed and governed  by Acts

and Ordinances made by the government. Four Universities (DU, RU, JU and CU) are run under the separate University  Acts of 1973. The spirit of these Acts reflects the intention to protect the autonomy of the country’s highest seats of learning. Through the formation of a democratically elected university senate, syndicate and other statutory bodies, the university administration was expected to be made accountable to the university community itself, rather than subservient to the government or the party in power. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was also created in 1973 as a buffer between the government and the universities. The 1973 University Acts replaced the old University Acts which were seen as giving the university administration unbridled powers to press academic freedom. However these Acts were not fully implemented  until the early 1990s as the successive military and quasi military governments after the coup in 1975 were uncomfortable with autonomy and academic freedom of the universities granted by the Acts. Though some provisions of these Acts needs review, all governments at different times continuously kept on flouting these laws and tried to interfere in the running of the universities to suit their political needs

  1. Each of other universities have their own Acts/Ordinances/and Statutes. Most

of these Acts are made such that the government has tight control over the

running of these universities.

(b)   Private universities: Private universities are managed under the Private University Act 1992. These universities are not completely outside government control. The top administrative and academic positions, including that of the vice-chancellor, are formally appointed on the recommendation of the governing body of the respective university, by the President of the country, who is  statutorily the Chancellor of all universities. The government is in the process of reviewing this act to have more control over the private universities. It is believed that such a process is on the way as quite a few private universities were identified running their academic and administrative functions without ensuring minimum acceptable standard.

(c)    Colleges: All degree colleges are affiliated under the National University which oversees the academic matters while the administrative issues are dealt separately by the Ministry of Education or in the case of private colleges by the respective  governing bodies of such colleges.

Erosion of standard and norms:

The erosion of ethical standards and norms in higher education, governance and management that began in the 1970s after the military took over the state power became more widespread and institutionalized in later years. As soon as a new government assumed power, it became common practice in the public universities to replace the duly elected and appointed Vice-chancellors with persons regarded as loyal to the party in power. The transfer of college principals and teachers on political consideration is quite widespread.

In some private universities infighting and feuding amongst the founders for control of the university is common. There were instances where some went to court to settle such issues as to who will become the Vice chancellor and others have tried using students to serve their purpose.

Madrasa education:

One of the oldest form of institutional education in the Muslim world has been the madrasa system of education. Currently madrasas have entered the higher education system of Bangladesh. Madrasas were originally places of worship or Khanqas that later developed into ‘maktabs’ which taught Quran recitation and Islamic rituals. Madrasas were formed as sites of Islamic theological education.( Tiffany p.1)

Islam’s Prophet (SM) gave topmost priority on seeking knowledge and for hundreds of years since the days of the Prophet, seeking knowledge was an integral part of Islamic tradition.

In the period when the Arab Muslims did not have the skill to either write or read, would memorize the verses from the Holy Quran. During the life of the Prophet the interpretation was left to the Prophet. After his death, Muslim scholars, most of whom were the disciples of the Prophet and self taught, sought answers in the sayings and daily life of the Prophet. The mosques continued to be the centre of learning even after the Prophet’s death. As  Islam  continued to spread after the death of the Prophet and other parts of Arabia and North and West  Africa came under the fold of Islamic belief, the belief itself came into contact with other traditions and languages. It became necessary to create cadre of Muslim experts who would develop sophisticated writings and textbooks on Islamic teachings for the non-Arab Muslim populations. This was the beginning of madrasa system of education, the centre of learning the initial purpose of which was to preserve religious conformity through uniform teaching of Islam for all. The early madrasas taught jurisprudence, medicine, astronomy, architecture, philosophy, science and public administration.

During the seven hundred year rule of the Ottoman Turks (13th to 20th century) madrasa system of education spread all over the Muslim World and in areas where believers in the religion resided. When Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages of the Medieval Period, these madrasas in many places were the only places where knowledge was created, practiced and learned.

In the eleventh  and twelfth  century, madrasa system of education went through radical transformation and two types of education evolved. The first one was scholastic theology to produce spiritual leaders, and secondly earthly knowledge to produce government servants who would be appointed in various countries and regions of the Muslim World. Numerous madrasas were established  in addition to providing Islamic knowledge imparted secular education in the field of science, philosophy and public administration and governance. The early madrasas produced renowned scholars and philosophers who contributed to earthly secular knowledge too. Unfortunately when Europe was reawakening (Renaissance) in the 14th and 15th century the Muslim empires started to crumble and the Muslims themselves got involved in political rivalries and intrigues. The Muslim scholars began to shun the pursuit of knowledge and go back to the basics. Rational science was abandoned.

The post Industrial Revolution in England witnessed the expansion of the British empire and the English Crown taking control of many of the territories in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent up to the islands of Malaya and Indonesia. With the colonization came a new modern system of education. Unfortunately it was the social elites who had access to such modern education and the poor section of the people were left to the madrasa system which was suffering from total stagnancy. An education system which produced scholars, scientists and philosophers began to regularly churn out half-educated Mullahs whose learning and teaching revolved only around the Holy Quoran devoid of any analysis and scientific interpretation.

The first educational institution established by the East India Company in India was Calcutta Madrasa in 1781. This was done by Governor General Warren Hastings on the request of the Muslim elites. From then onward education, secondary or higher, went on two different direction–one religious, where medium of instruction was Arabic, Persian and Urdu and the other one western, liberal, taught in English and Bangla. While the latter emerged as the education of the middle class and upper class the madrasa system catered to the poorer section of the society. In most cases food and lodging for amadrasa student was free. Though the British tried to introduce some modernism in the madrasa education and introduce English and Bangla into the system the Muslim elites never responded to such an attempt with the belief that English was the language of the infidels (mushrik) and Bangla belonged to the Hindus.

After the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, Muslims in India were divided in their opinion on how to improve the general condition of the wretched Muslim community. One groups argued that the Muslim of the sub-continent should stick to the basics and shun everything that they considered western including the study of modern science, logic, philosophy and language ( English).  To further their cause  they established the ‘Darul Ulum Deoband” in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1863. The other group led by enlightened people like Sir Syed Ahmed who advocated that to match the march towards the overall progress of the west Muslims must rediscover themselves and get back to the practice of modern science and knowledge and learn English. To further their cause they established Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 later to become Aligarh Muslim University. This ushered an era of clear bifurcation of ‘Muslim Brand” of education in the Indian Sub-continent which continues to a great extent even to the present day.

The Calcutta Madrasa was renamed as Aleya Madrasa and concentrated on teaching of Muslim Law and jurisprudence instead of an all round progressive education for the Muslims. All efforts to modernize the madrasa education by the British failed and in 1910 the British divided the madrasa education system into two branches, the Old Scheme madrasa Education and the New Scheme madrasa education. This represented separation of secular education for the upper middle class elite and basic unresearched religious education for the poor. (Tiffany p.2)). The government took over the administration of the New Scheme System and the Old Scheme System was primarily left to the Mullahs. The New Scheme System later on came to be popularly known as Aleya Madrasa and the second variety that that remained outside the purview and control of the government took the name of quomi madrasa. A Madrasa Education Board was established in 1949 to regulate the course of studies and conduct examinations. These madrasas received government funding while the quomi madrasas were neither controlled by the government nor received any government funding. They received funding from private donation from home and abroad and all attempts to bring them under government control failed.

When Bangladesh became independent in 1971 Bangladesh had around 1000 aleya madrasas. These madrasas teach science, history, agriculture, biology, English, Bangla besides religious education. The majority of the graduates of the aleya madrasa system pursues higher education in universities or join the job market while the graduates of the quomi  madrasas ends up being ‘Imams‘ or ‘Muazzens‘ in mosques or teaches in quomi madrasa. With their level of knowledge and quality of education and skills they are unable to make any meaningful contribution to the normal economic life of the country.

At present  Bangladesh has about 9200+ aleya madrasa where 34,53,00 (all levels)  students study whereas no credible statistics are available relating to the quomi variety of madrasa education. (GOB -2006. p. 364) Though the leaders of quomi madrasas claim there are around 5 million students studying in 15000 quomi madrasas of the country controlled by at least 13 bodies or persons. (Daily Star, 2005)Learning in these madrasas are by rote. There is no scope for critical thinking or analysis. They have no access to any form of IT and most of the quomi students are not allowed to read newspapers or watch TV. Mathematics is totally unknown to them and teaching and learning in mostly done in Urdu and Arabic.

Today twenty percent of students in educational institutions are in madrasas (both variety)  and the government expenditure in madrasa education in higher than the mainstream public education. Since the 1980s the number of madrasa has been increasing faster than the mainstream educational institutions. Between 1999-2005 while the number of secondary and higher secondary educational institutions increased by 16 percent the registered madrasa increased by 27.9 percent (GOB 2006. p. 364). To further complicate the existing education scenario in Bangladesh, the immediate past Four Party Alliance government of the country declared that the Fazil and Kamil degrees given by the madrasas would be considered as equivalent to degrees of Bachelor and Masters  of general universities and the quomi madrasa degrees would also be recognized by the government. This would simply mean such graduates would be eligible for all types of public and private sector jobs having  no  basic skills needed for such jobs.

The Road Ahead:

Three and half decades earlier  when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation it was still a country dependent on agriculture. Agriculture produced about 60 percent  of the countries GDP and bulk of its labor force relied on agriculture for their livelihood. During the eighties and nineties, Bangladesh, has seen an incredible transformation of its economy and society. It has done well in the management of natural disaster, sanitation, population control, women empowerment and literacy enhancement. However it could not assure development and sustenance of a good higher education system for its people. In 1971 the new born country inherited a system of higher education which primarily functioned in dual mode. The general and technical and vocational education was imparted through colleges, institutes and universities and were controlled by the government. The government through its agencies and ministries monitored the development, management and progress of this education. Both English and Bangla were used as mediums of instruction in these institutions of higher learning. Texts and reading materials  had both local and foreign origin and research in most cases were minimal. The system suddenly received a jolt immediately after the independence of the country when the government without any prior preparation announced that imparting of higher education would be in Bangla. By the time this decision was reversed in the mid eighties a generation of graduates went through a process of such a system as no quality books and references were available in Bangla that could be used for higher education and as such an acceptable quality in higher education could not be maintained. During this period the country also experienced a development where many children of the affluent or upper middle class left the country for education –be it in the primary or tertiary level. Some went to good schools some to below average ones. Capitalizing on this phenomenon some private entrepreneurs started a new venture of offering education both in the higher and lower level. In the meantime, the country also gradually shifted its focus for economic development from agriculture to manufacturing and service sector. Because of this shift and gradual trickle of local and foreign investment in the private sector, the demand for graduates with basic skill and knowledge in English and IT started to grow. The centers of learning both in the higher and the lower section realized this, saw  opportunity and tried to promote their institutions (both schools and universities) where facilities for learning English and acquiring  skill in IT were available. However the ground reality was far from satisfactory though some did try to keep up to the promise. In recent years the country saw the mushrooming of English medium schools and universities, many lacking the minimum facilities for imparting good quality education. Parents, whose real options are limited are often compelled to send their children to such schools, paying exorbitant fees.

The public sector higher education system has its own embedded problems. It lacks proper funding, pragmatic management and required infrastructure and academic environment. Because of adequate financial and other incentives it has also failed to attract qualified teachers and instructors. The lack of funding has stunted the availability of proper research facilities. In the job market the graduates from the public sector and the private sector often face embarrassing situations as their competitiveness differ in many areas. Again the private sector education is mostly job oriented where creation of knowledge is practically non- existent.

Besides public and private sector higher education system, Bangladesh along with India and Pakistan also has a very strong madrasa system of education that produces thousands of graduates. The madrasa system of education in this part of the world dates back to eighteenth century. As the Hindus and the Buddhist had their own education based on religion it was logical for the Muslims during this period to have their own system of education too. In later years the Hindus and the Buddhists realized the importance of integrating their systems with the Western system while the Muslim failed to do so. A section of the Muslims though tried to reform the education system of the Muslims and bring about a sense of  modernity their success was limited as the larger section of the Muslim community concluded that anything that is Western in un-Islamic.

Scrutinizing the prevalent higher education system of Bangladesh it can be safely concluded that the system is faltering and  is in a moribund state. The purpose of any higher education system should be to fertilize a nation’s intellect and provide the milieu out of which emerge the engineer, the lawyer, the IT professionals and researchers. If Bangladesh is to be a partner of the growing economic power houses of the region the proper creation and dissemination of knowledge must be given the topmost priority. Under the present system of education this is not possible.

The University Grants Commission, the overseeing authority of the universities both public and private, in its latest annual report published in January, 2007, opined the quality of education in universities could not be improved unless the quality of teachers and education at primary and secondary levels are improved. Nothing could be more true. Education in the primary and secondary level also exist in  multifaceted form. There are government and privately owned schools, both Bangla and English medium together with the madrasas. There are colleges and universities both in the private and public sector. The public sector universities are of recent origin while colleges in the private sector have existed for the last hundred years.  High school graduates can also go to technical and vocational institutions of higher learning like medical colleges, engineering universities and technical colleges.

Andre Beteille, an eminent sociologist said “universities are not only centres of learning, however badly or well they play their part in transmission and creation of knowledge, they are also social institutions that provide the setting for a very distinctive kind of interaction among men and women and between generations”. (Beteille, 2005, p.1). This is where Bangladesh’s principle provider of higher education – the universities, have failed though the government pursued a policy of expansion, planning to open new universities converting some of the former technical into technical universities. However, maintaining the quality of the academic programs in the universities as well as colleges remained a continuing challenge.

The private universities have emerged in response to the failing of the public system but they were not intended to be an alternative to public universities. They can play only a complementary role and fill a gap in the country’s tertiary education system. The basic task of creation and dissemination of knowledge in the field of liberal arts, humanities, basic sciences, social sciences medicine etc. will remain primarily the domain of the public universities.

Bangladesh’s higher education can be classified into the following system:

a)      College system –both public and private. One could graduate from colleges with a Masters degree though most colleges still lack proper funding, academic and administrative facilities.

b)      The university system – both public and private. With the establishment of Dhaka University in 1921 an new chapter was opened in the history of higher education in Bangladesh. Today there are twenty five  of them in Bangladesh. The number of students in these universities stood at 12,41,352 in December 2006. The Private universities are of recent origin and there are 56 of them. They offer mostly job oriented courses where 1,24,267 students are enrolled. The public university system in this part of the sub-continent originated in 1921.  In  global ranking, none of the  universities of Bangladesh could find a place for itself. The Spain based Webometrics Ranking of world universities in their report published in  January 2008 put Bangladesh University of Science and Technology in the 3969th position out of 4000 universities ranked.

c)      The madrasa system of education is growing at a rapid speed and offering courses most of which is of no use for modern day economic and development activities.

Action Priorities:

Students in Bangladesh may complete with students from the more developed countries and do well. The university faculties in Bangladesh are often able to demonstrate their ability to conduct world class research. But these are individual efforts rather than the outcome of a system that is properly planned, adequately resourced and functioning effectively.

The systemic and far-reaching changes in governance, administration and academic affairs needed in university education in Bangladesh call for attention on a priority basis to some key areas indicated in this paper. These include clearer articulation of policy, improved governance and management, and adequate provision for and better use of financial resources.

i. Articulations of higher education policy

The goals, priorities and strategies in higher education and strategies for achieving the defined outcomes in the context of the 21st. century global market, the knowledge economy and national aspirations and values must be articulated and delineated clearly. This is not a one-shot affair and requires a mechanism involving major stakeholders to continue focus on policies, priorities and their implementation.

The structure and content of higher education  curricula and teaching-learning practices the balance between specialized and general liberal arts education, the complementarities of public and private providers of higher education, and the links between primary, secondary and tertiary stages of education should be important elements of policy consideration.

Madrasa education in Bangladesh is a historical reality. Though it has failed to serve the national development purpose in any meaningful it would not be  possible  to write it off  in near future. The government has to just continue to motivate, the  teachers and administrators highlighting the benefits of restructuring the system and updating its age old curricula. Sporadic attempts were made at times to modernize the madrasa education system in the country but these have consistently failed. The main opposition were from madrasa leaders and they even threatened ‘Jihad’ if the government tried to bring about any reforms in their system, especially to the quomi variety. No reform will be possible through force. Attempts should be made to make people involved in madrasa education   understand the positive side of introducing skill development courses in the system. In neighboring India the number of madrasas is estimated to be between thirty to forty thousand. Except in some parts of Kerala and West Bengal these madrasas cater strictly to Muslim children. In West Bengal the madrasa education has gone through a transformation, though small but very significant. Madrasas in West Bengal and Kerala have introduced modern education, including English, basic science, IT and in some even Sanskrit. In 2007 five thousand six hundred and sixty six non Muslim students studied in the madrasas of West Bengal which increased to six thousand six hundred and ninety two in 2008. This primarily happened as the graduates of madrasas in West Bengal found it possible to enter main stream job market with education form the madrasas.  The madrasa (especially those of quomi variety) should be exposed to such developments happening in our neighboring country.

A total integration of the multi-faceted institutional system of higher education is neither possible nor practical under the present circumstances. Bangladesh is not the only country having such a system. The issue is whether such a system is capable of producing people who would be able to lead  the country  into a modern knowledge based 21st. century. This is where all efforts will have to be concentrated.

ii. Governance management and financing of higher education

Policy-making for higher education must be completely depoliticized. The focus must be on the overreaching goals of maintaining quality norms and protecting academic freedom in higher education.

Till recent times UGC was an organization that was unable to perform its task as a proper overseeing body because of its over politicization. It has to be turned into an effective and genuinely autonomous body that would be able to initiate policy discourse.

Norms of quality and performance criteria of institutions, specialized fields of study and research, teacher and student performance and mechanisms for enforcement of standards and criteria must be established. It has also to be recognized that quality assurance in higher education is possible only through greater self-regulation, peer review and internal accountability, and transparency in decision-making.

Less than two percent of the education budget is allocated for higher education in Bangladesh. This has to be increased significantly. Expenditures in higher education must be conceived as investment for human capital development rather than expenditure. Such increase in allocation can only assure a continuous supply of proper human resource to make Bangladesh a competitive nation.

Bangladesh  is positioned between two emerging titans of the 21st century – China and India. Her geopolitical positions confronts Bangladesh with great challenges and opportunities , if she proves capable of accepting  the challenges and seize opportunities. Development of a system of higher education that meets the quality standards of the 21st century is the desired road to fulfillment of the potential of our young people and prosperity for the nation.


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  1. UNESCO (2001). Higher Education in Developing Countries-Peril and Promise. Paris: UNESCO
  1. UGC (2006) Annual Report of the UGC 2006. Dhaka: Bangladesh University Grants Commission.
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  1. Lind, M. (2006).  “Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 30 No. 4, Autumn 2006. Washington D.C
  1. Clausen, C.  (2006).  “The New Ivory Tower,.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 30 No. 4, Autumn 2006. Washington D.C
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Source by Abdul Mannan

Author: admin