Bangladesh’s university reforms should prioritize quality and encompass the private sector

Dhaka (Bangladesh) – Public and private sectors should be included in the design and implementation of any reforms to address the issues around quality of higher education in Bangladesh.

Students engaged in group work, October 2017. Photo by FES / Fahmida Akter

Bangladesh has seen the number of students enrolled in tertiary education rise sharply in recent years, in line with the country’s wider development efforts. The state has opened several new universities and departments, and more have been set up by private and philanthropic organizations.

However, both public and private-sector universities and colleges are oversubscribed and in need of reform. But reforms in public universities have been sporadically discussed, including by policy-makers, for several years. On the other hand, a little debate has mostly focussed on combining both state and private institutions until now.

Education is a human right, and also—especially at tertiary level—essential to a country’s overall economic growth and development. 

As the quality problems are largely common to both the public and the private sectors, any effective reform should include both in their design and their scope of implementation, according to the participants of the workshop organized jointly by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and University of Dhaka in October.

Education is a human right, and also—especially at tertiary level—essential to a country’s overall economic growth and development. Higher education makes the workforce more productive, moves it up the value chain of production, and contributes more to a knowledge-based, equitable society. Bangladesh is committed to improving its education at all levels as it approaches middle-income status amid efforts to diversity and digitalize its economy.

Despite the best efforts of the state and other actors, Bangladesh’s higher education remains beset by a range of problems. These include weak policies, lack of governance, poor relations between students and teachers, academic under-performance, and a focus by private bodies on financial profit.

FES has been working on these challenges of tertiary education reform since 2014 via a range of activities including workshops and primary research, with a focus on the University of Dhaka (DU), and in collaboration with that university’s Professor Imtiaz Ahmed and Dr. Iftekhar Iqbal. One outcome of this work is the book titled “University of Dhaka: Making Unmaking Remaking.”

The focus was expanded in 2017 by engaging stakeholders of private universities, to add weight to the calls for reforms in the sector and to discuss the future of higher education—including the private and public universities.

The Education Weeks of FES Bangladesh in August were a sequel to this activity. Almost 260 students, 4 vice-chancellors, 120 faculty members and a number of management staff participated in the two workshops on public universities in Rajshahi and Chittagong and four workshops on private universities in Dhaka. 

Academics, students and management of both the public and private universities found almost the same reasons to bring reforms in the tertiary education. Low-cost public universities cannot take in all eligible students, when the demand of university education is extremely high. This has created opportunities for the growth of private universities, which charge comparatively higher fees, and which have seen enrolment numbers rise to rival those of state-run universities. 

"For better decision making, representatives from private universities should be included in governance of the University Grants Commission" – Professor Imtiaz Ahmed 

So far, the predominant policy discourse has focussed on reforms in the public universities. However, a large number of diverse participants in the FES-DU workshops demanded immediate reforms in university education to improve quality across both public and private institutions, at the same pace and with the same degree of importance.

“FES has set education as a top priority issue worldwide,” said Franziska Korn, Resident Representative of FES Bangladesh. “In a country like Bangladesh, where almost half of its population is below 24 years, a functioning higher education system is key to give the young generation a future." 

(left to right): Franziska Korn of FES Bangladesh, Prof. Syed Saad Andaleeb of BRAC University, Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University, Dr. Iftekhar Iqbal of Dhaka University and Parvez Karim Abbasi of East West University, October 2017. Photo by FES / Fahmida Akter

Vice Chancellor of Chittagong University announced its own effort to follow the work and to publish a book, on the model of the one already undertaken by DU and titled “University of Dhaka: Making Unmaking Remaking.”

Professor Imtiaz Ahmed welcomed the increased role of private universities, indicating that they hold “enormous potential for taking Bangladesh to a new height in the global knowledge society.” He also suggested that “for better decision making, representatives from private universities should be included in governance of the University Grants Commission.”

As the Education Weeks ended, participants’ expectation for the future was high, in line with the country’s efforts to achieve goal 4 (quality education) of the Sustainable Development Goals. Bangladesh has made outstanding progress with regards to the Millennium Development Goals (Bangladesh Progress Report 2015). More needs to be done, with regards to tertiary education as elsewhere, but the government, with ongoing FES support, is positioned to rise to the challenge. ###

For more information on the work by FES in Bangladesh contact the resident representative Franziska Korn and the FES Bangladesh team. 



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