Bangladesh’s universities serve ruling party’s interests

Bangladesh’s universities serve ruling party’s interests

Afsan Chowdhury, 

Every day, with scary regularity, the top universities of Bangladesh are producing bad news. In almost every case, they are either linked to abuse of power or corruption, often both. So messy is the situation that they have become synonymous with disorder and chaos.

Many crimes are allegedly committed in the universities including murder as the Fahad case in the country’s top engineering university shows. The problem is not about an individual or even a group. It’s about the management of higher education itself. Bangladesh’s universities are run on political rather than academic considerations.

The latest situation centers around Jahangirnagar University (JU). The Vice Chancellor of JU has become a hugely controversial person in regard to her financial management of university projects. Teachers opposed to her had been demanding her removal for over a year but as a ruling party loyalist, she is protected and was confirmed for a second term.

In the middle of this year, a major financial scandal broke when it was alleged that a central leader of the ruling Awami League’s students wing had demanded a huge cut from the VC. These central level student leaders alleged that the VC was already making “Eid payments” to the “local” Chhatra League (CL) leaders so they wanted their cut as “national” CL leaders.

It became a major national scandal and top two leaders of CL were ultimately removed. However, no legal action was taken against them. Meanwhile, the ousted student leaders claimed that the VC and her family were also involved in the racket. Till today, no investigation of such allegations has been made.

Chhatra League activists of the Bangladesh Engineering University beat to death a student who had written a Facebook post on a water sharing treaty with India. This shook everyone up. Since there was CCTV footage to serve as evidence, the death was not just an allegation. Public opinion was intense, and the authorities had to go for arrests. The alleged killers may now face trial. The VC said she had no control over the Chhatra League.

Ageless youth

All this comes in the wake of the arrest of many Jubo League activists particularly in the Dhaka city wings. “Jubo” means “youth” but with most leaders around mid 40s and 50s with the last chief in the 70s, the construct is obviously youth in name only.

However, the arrest of several leaders involved in large scale corruption, extortion and gambling rackets, caused a furor and the Prime Minister has now set the age ceiling at 55 years which is better than allowing “unlimited youth” to flourish.

Essentially, there is no task list for these youth and students outfits, so nobody can say what their role is. However, in the public perception, their main work is ensuring control of the political situation and if necessary use force to do so. The result is the supremacy of party objectives over institutional ones.

Universities as political wings?

The Jahangirnagar VC was facing problems for long and it continued even after the “cut money” racket was exposed. It reached such a point in the campus that students shut the gates and the VC was locked in.

At this point, Chhatra League activists came to her “rescue” and physical violence ensued. Teachers and students were both hurt. The university was shut down. However, the agitation is still on.

The relieved VC however said that the CL students had carried out an “uprising” and liberated her. She expressed her gratitude to CL and came out sounding like a party activist not a VC. Public backlash to her statement has been strong.

The VC after all is a product of the system. The government doesn’t see the universities as seats of higher learning but more as political units to be run and managed by party loyalists in league with the Chhatra League. This model is great from a party point of view but not so much from a university’s.

This model has implications including the erosion of the quality of education but then, the university education’s prime objective may also be political control. Hence, the ruling class may actually prefer such VCs who will remain loyal to the party.

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