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Pvt university boom overshadowed by declining enrolments

This is the second part of a six-part series exploring how private universities in Bangladesh are flouting laws and regulations
Mir Mohammad Jasim
21 Jun 2024 21:00:13 | Update: 22 Jun 2024 13:09:23
Pvt university boom overshadowed by declining enrolments

Fareast International University (FIU) had a seating capacity of 2,340 in 2022 but enrolled only 652 new students that year. The university operates with just four permanent professors for its 1,431 students.

FIU lacks a permanent campus and has not obtained a permanent certificate from the Ministry of Education even after 11 years of establishment.

The University Grants Commission (UGC)’s 49th annual report reveals that FIU spent Tk 1.8 crore on research, yet had no publications or research papers in 2022. The university also has no foreign students.

Central Women’s University, one of the oldest private universities in Bangladesh, is another example of an institution struggling with low student numbers. Established in 1993, it has no permanent campus or permanent certificate. Despite having a capacity of 3,000 seats, it only enrolled 257 students.

Regrettably, the university spent just Tk 2,000 on research. The teacher-student ratio is unsatisfactory, and in 2022, it spent Tk 75,000 on the library and Tk 69,000 on laboratory facilities. The university currently has no foreign students.

These two private universities exemplify a broader crisis in Bangladesh's higher education sector. While the number of private universities continues to rise, student enrolment has almost stagnated or, in some cases, decreased.

In contrast, public universities have seen an increase in both the number of institutions and students, with the student population nearly doubling.

According to the UGC’s 49th annual report, the seating capacity of 110 private universities was 2,42,000, but only 1,49,000 students were enrolled in 2022.

In 2015, there were 85 private universities with 3,54,000 students. By 2022, the number of universities increased to 110, but the student population decreased to 3,41,000.

The UGC data indicates that the number of students has been decreasing over the past eight years, despite the near doubling of universities.

Meanwhile, the number of students going abroad for higher studies has tripled in the last 15 years, even though opportunities for higher education within the country have significantly increased.

Experts attribute this to the fact that many new universities lack the necessary infrastructure, skilled faculty, and research facilities to provide quality education. They also note that many students continue to go abroad for higher education because they believe domestic universities offer inadequate education quality and there are limited job opportunities in the country.

While the introduction of private universities initially reduced the number of students going to India for higher education, there have been no effective measures to curb the overall trend of students seeking foreign degrees.

Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, professor emeritus of the Department of English at Dhaka University, suggested that private universities could improve their overall education quality by appointing retired lecturers from public universities.

“Student enrolment would increase if private universities could demonstrate strong performance,” he added.

Professor Dr Siddiqur Rahman, a former member of the National Education Policy 2010 Formulation Committee, told The Business Post that while some universities are performing well and attracting a sufficient number of students, most are struggling due to poor infrastructure, outdated laboratories, and a lack of qualified teachers.

“As a result, parents are reluctant to enrol their children in sub-standard universities, opting to send them abroad instead,” he said.

University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) Vice-Chancellor Professor Imran Rahman stated that the number of public universities is steadily increasing and students prefer enrolling there due to the lower costs.

Professor Dr ABM Rashedul Hassan, vice-chancellor of EXIM Bank Agricultural University Bangladesh, mentioned that private universities outside Dhaka are particularly suffering from a student crisis and that it will take time for them to attract sufficient numbers of students.

Increasing trend of studying abroad

According to the latest report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 49,151 Bangladeshi students went abroad in 2022, up from 44,338 in 2021.

UNESCO data highlights that the United States, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK, India, Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia are the top ten destinations for Bangladeshi students.

Student consultancy firms in Bangladesh report that around 80,000 students go abroad every year on average, despite the increasing availability of higher education in Bangladesh with the establishment of more public and private universities.

Sources at the US Embassy in Bangladesh noted a significant increase in Bangladeshi undergraduate students, with more than a 50 per cent rise to 2,500 students enrolled in bachelor's and associate degree programmes.

Nearly 10,000 Bangladeshi graduate students are currently studying at various US educational institutions, making Bangladesh the seventh-largest source of graduate students in the United States.

Over the past decade, the number of Bangladeshi students in the United States has increased by more than 300 per cent, from 3,314 students in the 2011-2012 academic year to 13,563 students in the 2022-2023 academic year, according to the embassy.

Challenges in university rankings

There is currently no mechanism in place to measure the quality of education at universities in Bangladesh. However, Bangladeshi universities generally perform poorly in international rankings.

Times Higher Education (THE) recently released its Asia University Rankings 2024, ranking 739 universities from 31 Asian countries and regions. Among private universities in Bangladesh, only North South University (NSU) was in the 351-400 bracket, and BRAC University (BracU) was in the 401-500 bracket.

According to the THE’s World University Rankings 2023, Dhaka University (DU) and NSU were ranked between 601 and 800. Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), and Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET) were ranked between 1,201 and 1,500.

NSU was the only private university from Bangladesh to be ranked.

The rankings, based on 13 performance indicators, included 1,799 universities across 104 countries.

United International University (UIU) Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Md Abul Kashem Mia told The Business Post that they plan to become one of the top institutions in Asia and are working towards achieving a better position in the world rankings.

Teacher shortage reducing student enrolment

Reputed private universities such as North South University (NSU), BRAC University (BracU), Independent University Bangladesh (IUB), United International University (UIU), American International University Bangladesh (AIUB), Daffodil International University (DIU), International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT), and others have the capacity to increase their student intake.

However, these universities are unable to expand due to a shortage of skilled and qualified teachers.

“We have been continuously looking for good teachers, but finding skilled educators is very difficult. The existing lecturers have a huge workload and cannot perform their duties properly,” Prof Dr Atiqul Islam, vice-chancellor of NSU, told The Business Post.

ULAB VC Prof Imran Rahman said that the teacher shortage is the main challenge for private universities, making it tough to attract more students if quality education cannot be ensured due to the lack of skilled teachers.

“We are facing a severe shortage of quality teachers and cannot launch new departments. The process of hiring foreign teachers is also very complex,” he added.

Positive aspects amid challenges

It is true that the number of private university students is decreasing, even as new universities are being established.

However, the percentage of students enrolled in science, technology, pharmacy, and agriculture departments at private universities is satisfactory and even higher than at public universities.

Approximately 64 per cent of students are enrolled in science, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, biology, engineering, and technology disciplines.

Additionally, 22 per cent of students are enrolled in business disciplines, while the remaining 14 per cent are from humanities and social sciences.