It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know not to change a running system. Private universities are doing very well without the presence of partisan politics. Their watchdog, the University Grants Commission (UGC), recently told them to up their game (read: programs) by incorporating several life skills and extracurricular club activities. They were told to switch to a semester system with a notional credited hours system defined by the Bangladesh Accreditation Council. The proposed system involves many activities outside of the classroom to facilitate critical thinking, team building, and creative expression to foster youth activism.
Students at top private universities, by design, must engage in clubs where they learn life skills such as leadership, negotiation, time management, finance, communication, presentation, skills computers, etc. They participate in healthy debates or defend their entrepreneurial ideas organized by industry experts. They incubate their ideas and pursue various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in line with government plans. Their efforts are reflected in various ranking indices. The upper layer of these universities strategically pursues the ranking criteria and regularly participates in the ranking process. Some of them have even reached global benchmarks with notable success.
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In a rare feat, two Bangladeshi debaters from a private Bangladeshi university have won a world championship. He then shows the pleasant climate of private universities in which critical discussions and extracurricular activities flourish. Unfortunately, these are rapidly disappearing from the public system. It can be said that both of these debaters had their early years at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) at the University of Dhaka; this only underlines the apolitical nature of the institute.
We can still find old footage of BTV debates in which some of our current political leaders are seen representing public universities, medical schools, and engineering universities. The outgoing Minister of Education is a good example. Unfortunately, such a culture of tolerance, plurality and social cohesion, which can be argued for and against, has disappeared.
The student wing of the ruling party did not prove to be champions of discursive practices. Their recent presence in the media is far from positive. They talk about the glory days of student politics without specifying their current role in it. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave us a nation. And in a resource-scarce and heavily populated country, the responsibility for nation-building rests with human capital, which includes the stock of knowledge, skills, and other personal characteristics that make people productive. I am not aware of any student-focused student league activity that requires an official presence at private universities.
It was refreshing to watch a video report published by Amader Shomoy with Golam Rabbani, former secretary general of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). As a human resources manager in a company, he tries to accommodate his former colleagues from the organization he works for. He frankly admits that he receives over a thousand resumes a day, but he can’t even give out 10. It’s not because there aren’t enough jobs, but because job seekers do not have the necessary skills. They have their university degrees, but nothing beyond certificates. Rabbani goes on to comment that his party has become an “unemployment factory”. Central party leaders use students for political events. Only a few move up the career ladder and find party posts – and the rest are pushed aside. It is these students who become a burden on their families, their society and, by extension, on the country.
The adrenaline rush felt by young students on campus fades once they are faced with the cruelty of the real world. The dream reality of the power they shaped by displaying PVC banners here and there to compete for the visibility of their central leaders is facing a reality. On campus, they mark walls and pillars with graffiti to advertise their ubiquitous presence. Their material expressions of their day-to-day politics are evident in their clothes, sunglasses, motorbikes and cellphones, stating that “visibility is everything”. It remains to be seen whether they really believe in the ideology they are spreading. They display their power in the protection of state power.
Thus, when they unilaterally announce that they will have units in different private universities, ordinary citizens are alarmed. They have not discussed this with any of the institutions to which they assign full student bodies. Private universities registered under the Trust Act are apolitical. A press release issued by the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh (APUB) reiterated its position, saying that it does not discourage students and faculty from holding and exercising progressive political views in their field, but that she didn’t want partisan politics on campus, which they believe disrupts the pleasant academic atmosphere.
Interestingly, most signatories are known for their pro-government affiliations. Yet they believe that the proposed introduction of Bangladesh Chhatra League units will harm their institutions. The main argument given by the student wing is to resist the reactionary politics on campus. They cited Section 6(10) of the Private Universities Act 2010, which requires universities not to engage in activities that undermine the sovereignty and freedom of Bangladesh. In such serious cases, the state surveillance system is more appropriate than some autonomous young people who thrive on disempowering others.
It is time for the student wing of the ruling party to do some soul-searching. When a student was killed for a patriotic post in Buet, the perpetrators were subjected to crushing moral and social sanctions. They completely alienated themselves to such an extent that even former student leaders were not welcome to hold campus events. And that’s not the only time they abused their power and suffered the consequences.
A recent Center for Insights in Survey Research (CISR) report on campus politics claims that there is overwhelming cynicism about politics, as students see it as self-serving agency. Student political parties do not focus on real student concerns such as dorm spaces, food quality, logistics and infrastructure, job placement, updated programs, health services, substance abuse , etc. Instead, they promote a culture of political patronage that exacerbates campus problems. There is a lack of civic education. Campus politics can only be beneficial if faculty, administration, and students are freed from partisan politics.
We saw it in the case of youth activism led by Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg. We want our students to be global leaders who can broker deals in an entrepreneurship competition, come up with counter-arguments in a debate meeting, lead a team in sports or programming competitions, generate ideas for social developments and reaching out to the disenfranchised community. We want them to win hearts with their passion for the true development of the country. We don’t want to see them flex their muscles for a piece of the development pie. We don’t want students looking for campus glories that have no afterlife.
Doctor Shamsad Mortuza is an English professor at Dhaka University.