The Jahangirnagar University situation is a good reminder of how amazing the situation has become in the public universities. While the agitation there is about removing the vice chancellor who has been publicly disgraced — not that it matters — and has lost support of many people, it also reflects a deeper reality. He continues to stay on because a strong part of the government supports him and not his ability. He will stay on until the authorities remove him and not because he is bad for the University but because it suits existing power politics and his continuation may provide political embarrassment.
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Anyone asked about the great achievement of Dhaka University always mentions its role in the 1952 Language Movement, the 1969 anti-Ayub agitation, the 1971 war, the anti-Ershad movement of the 1990s, the anti-ML agitation of 2008, etc. These are great political moments of our life but none are intellectual milestones. The intellectual tradition and the public education system do not co-exist.
The public university system has not produced any great thinker in the last half century and as trends go will not do so in the next either. This is not a statement of frustration but a factual one. The universities are not expected to produce scholars because it serves no purpose to anyone including the teachers but political activists which serves everyone and that’s where most of the focus of the universities are.
But when were public universities any different? The greatest tradition the universities have are political in nature, not academic ones. Nobody ever says that the great achievements of Dhaka University are related to education or intellectual greatness. In fact, this University has had its glory days largely before 1947 and maybe one or two winks before 1971 but not many later.
It is not fair to ask a donkey to give cow’s milk.
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Many people are angry with the present VC of Jahangirnagar University because of how he has run the University and dealt with those opposed to him. But excuse me, which VC has behaved differently in any public university? Obviously the VCs reflect prevailing political cultures and that is hardly in any way different from the ones the VCs practice. VCs are not appointed on the basis of academic, intellectual or management skills merit but political ones. They are there because they are political activists and that’s how the activists behave. Nobody has ever asked that the VCs think clearly and if they did they may not have wanted to become the VC in the first place. The point is the universities are a place for politics and how are politicians in Bangladesh expected to behave?
They are perfectly suited for their job and they do well what they are supposed to do. It is enough that they don’t fight amongst each other for the job like the way two factions of students’ activists of the same party slug it out in attempts to gain control of the campus.
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We are often disappointed with our universities because we expect them to deliver education but if we look upon their actual purpose we won’t feel so bad. Since 1947, the universities have been used to gain political advantage. Once it became clear that controlling politics meant controlling the campuses, every political party has gone after it. Thus in the pre-1971 days, as students agitated against the Pakistani leadership of General Ayub Khan, the pro-Ayub Muslim League party floated the NSF( National Students Federation) which produced the kind of thuggery that we are familiar with and is the source of the great tradition. The 1969 movement solidified that position and 1971 made it the principal purpose. Nowhere in the years has been a call to develop intellectual positions or acumen. Consequently, neither an intellectual environment nor any number of significant independent intellectuals has emerged out of the university system.
No scholar is rewarded for academic excellence and whether it’s the university or the media, the focus is for political alliance not original thinking. So why should teachers think when you get much without doing so?
Since 1971, this position has been strengthened till it’s taken for granted that university based party politics is the key to everything else. The universities are about politics not education or scholarship. The proof is in the proverbial pudding.
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The public university education system doesn’t work because there is no effort to make it work. That happens because the principal cause which is gaining political advantage is achieved and the teachers are there to ensure that continuation. So they produce political factions — the White, Pink and Yellow groups — that fight a political partisan proxy war in the campuses. Teachers are ensured of privileges if they belong to the right group at the right time and the identity of the teacher as a political activist is guaranteed and consequently no pressure to deliver either as a teacher or a scholar. This process leads to the development of a new form of political institutions disguised as a place of learning. It is at par with the sewerage and sanitary worker of WASA where trade union activities can guarantee that he will not have to clean sewers because he is a political activist and his reward cup will be full.
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It is the students who I suppose are caught in this confusion as the best still apply to the public universities. They end up in a place which doesn’t consider their education the main duty of a teacher or many of the students either. The students spend time doing many things which have nothing to do with education like trying to remove the university VCs who look exactly like the one before. And the next one will look the same too. If Khaleda and Hasina look so much like each other, how can the political children look different?
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The universities look bad because we consider them educational institutions primarily. Of course as an institution meant to produce scholarship and learning it is non-existent but as a political activist producing factory it is enormously successful and that too at a low cost. For the moment let’s live with the fact that it is doing what it is supposed to do and rather well at that.
So let’s celebrate what they have done. As history shows the public university system as the prime delivery agent of higher learning ceased to exist many many years before. And so let’s not ask what can’t be delivered and focus on what it can do. Ask the donkey what it can do not what you think it should do.
Viva public universities. May the VC of Jahanagirnagar University be there forever!
Afsan Chowdhury is the Executive Editor of bdnews24.com.