Do the university authorities have no responsibility?

In the 70’s a vice-chancellor of Dhaka University had to go to jail for preparing more ration cards than the number of students in the dormitories. The VC said he did that so that students could eat at a minimum cost. Surely preparing more ration cards than the number of students cannot be supported. But he did that for the welfare of the students.

On the other hand, nowadays the office holders at universities do not give much thought to the problems of the students. The ongoing students’ movement at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) is a glaring example of this. On Wednesday, the heading of the Prothom Alo’s lead report was ‘Public universities: No one cares about the food students are taking’. The picture of the canteens of six public universities shown in the report is extremely distressing. The watery lentils (dal) of university dormitories are “famous”. The new addition is the smallest possible piece of meat or fish and coarse rice of the lowest quality. In exchange, students pay Tk 35-40 for every meal.

The university administration does not have any subsidy on food for the students. The reason is – lack of budget. However, the lack of budget could not stop construction of new buildings and elaborate events round the year. The university admin uses the excuse of lack of budget when it comes to students’ food.

This burning issue for the students was not in their minds as was revealed from what the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University, professor Md Akhtaruzzaman said. He said he would sit with the administration in this regard soon. Why hasn’t he held any meeting as yet?

The Prothom Alo report also revealed that leaders of the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League, are “involved” with the low quality of food at dormitory canteens. On the one hand, many of them do not pay bills and on the other hand, the canteen leaseholders need to follow the BCL leaders. In many cases, BCL leaders decide who would get the lease. In sequel to the tug of war with BCL leaders, life of a teacher of Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET) has been lost.

Countering the university authorities’ logic of “lack of budget” to explain their inability to provide subsidised food to students, we could ask, do the university authorities have any headache to provide quality food to students? Have they held any meeting with the government for increasing budget for this? Why would there be no budget for providing subsidised food to students, when the universities can avail hundreds of millions of taka for development purposes?

Several teachers of Jahangirnagar University conducted a research on the food quality at canteens of dormitories. It showed whereas a healthy person needs 2,800 kilocalories of nutrition every day, a student gets only 1,821 kilocalories. Any person gets nutrition below 2,800 kilocalories, is considered as below poverty line. Considering the nutrition level, university students have been getting higher education living below the poverty line.

We want the university authorities to take initiative to ensure quality food to students so that they get required amount of nutrition. The food quality will increase if the free food for BCL men is stopped. The university authorities have to ensure that. The authorities also have to provide subsidised food to residential students by shifting allotment from other sectors until they get allotment for the purpose of food.