For meaningful reforms of the University of Dhaka

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | Thursday, 14 July 2016

The University of Dhaka, the oldest and largest University in today's Bangladesh, started its journey on the first day of July in 1921. Its role in the sovereign Bengalee nation's formation and the emergence of independent Bangladesh is a widely discussed issue. Dhaka University is the only university in the world where the students raised the flag of their emerging independent country --- on 2 March, 1971. The birth of Bangladesh cannot be imagined without taking into consideration the glorious role and the sacrifices of Dhaka University students, teachers, scholars and others. Since its inception, the university has been able to earn a distinctive character by producing scholars who have enriched the global pool of knowledge through making notable contributions to the various fields of education and research. However, once famed as the 'Oxford of the East', the premier university of the country has over the years lost much of its past glory that has had serious negative implications for the state and society. What could be the reason for this dismal condition? In the book University of Dhaka: Making Unmaking Remaking, the authors attempt to address this vital question, covering diverse areas ranging from student politics and youth mobilisation, teachers' 'politics' and higher education, pedagogy and curriculum, governance, sanitation, housing, security, cultural practices and many more.
Contributed by both young and experienced academics and scholars, the book identifies the fundamental challenges that the largest university of Bangladesh has been facing, and the ways to overcome them in order to regain its academic standing nationally as well as globally. This book, containing fourteen chapters, is the outcome of intensive deliberations among a host of academics, students and the public held at the University of Dhaka in three-day-long workshops between September, 2014, and March, 2015. The book is a joined product of the Department of History and the Department of International Relations of the university.
The book begins with Professor Abdul Momin Chowdhury's personal reflections. Dr. Momin Chowdhury is an eminent member of the Dhaka University community, with a student and teaching career spanning more than five decades. His essay depicts a broad picture of the downward shifts that have taken place during his teaching career in the fundamental academic areas of the university, such as the residential system, tutorial practice, recruitment of students and teachers, governance, language of instruction, research and so on. For Chowdhury, the deterioration in today's Dhaka University stems from the teaching staff's declining interpersonal relationship with students, negligence of English as the language of instruction, the unmanageable number of students, misdirected student politics as well as an absence of moral anchorage and lack of true feeling as an academic community. The eminent historian concludes his personal reflections by uttering a caution: "If we do not ensure 'merit' as the only criteria for recruitment, promotion and all sorts of progress in the university and say goodbye to 'affiliation' (obviously political), the consequences will not bode well for education."
The second, third and fourth chapters of the book focus on the issue of student politics and youth mobilisation. These chapters provide an outline of the historical evolution of student politics, but take different yet complementary perspectives on the subject. Professor Syed Munir Khasru and Md. Tahmid Zami's contribution summarises the history of student politics in Bangladesh. In the chapter 'Student Politics in Post-1971 Bangladesh', Professor Anu Muhammad investigates the dynamics of student politics since independence. He identifies the problems of student politics within the broader political-economic shifts and points out that the ruling parties, to keep neo-liberal strategies alive, use the students as political tools - a process he calls 'Ruling Party Student Organisation (RPSO)' phenomenon. As democratic institutions and practices are far from real in Bangladesh, noted economist and intellectual Anu Muhammad rightly observes that RPSO represents what is essentially a 'zamindari' system that overrules any institutional or legal process in Bangladesh educational institutions. A space for the healthy growth of students' political and cultural activism in these institutions is still a dream and a source of continuous struggle. Professor Fakrul Alam's paper titled 'Student-Teacher Politics and Tertiary Education' provides an insight not just into student politics, but teachers' politics too. Dr. Alam emphasises that the best way to restore healthy student as well as teachers' politics would be by reviving the representative institutional structure under the umbrella of the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU).
Curricular and pedagogical issues are discussed in the chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8. In the paper 'Problems and Prospects of Higher Education', Atonu Rabbani underscores the need for appropriately trained teachers, advanced research and capacity building in order to take quickly Bangladesh's still unique advantage of "demographic dividend" to "exploiting the productive capacity of the new workforce". Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan and Mohammad Abul Kawsar focus on liberal arts, humanities and social sciences curriculums. Drawing on the examples of Dhaka University's Departments of Political Science, International Relations and Sociology, Tanzimuddin Khan discovers that the relative autonomy of the departments within the university governance framework has been abused to the extent that "personal interest, consultancy preference, vested group interest of the faculty members" have influenced the curricula and contents of the courses. In the paper 'University of Dhaka in the Age of Internet', Mohammad Atique Rahman investigates the changing nature of university education in the Internet and digital age and evaluates Dhaka University's performance in this regard. He recommends that the university take necessary initiatives to regulate the E-environment in such a way that it would maximally promote and sustain university teaching-learning.
The next three chapters deal with the issues related to the social life on the Dhaka University campus. In his paper 'Political Cleavages, Patronage System and Campus Insecurity', A. S. M. Ali Ashraf delves deep into an analysis of the politicisation of the University of Dhaka in the polarising politics of the two major political parties in the country. He notes the dominance of what he calls 'party-demics' in the place of academics, who are used as instruments of the party-in-power. These 'party-demics', the author observes, influence all the campus activities in favour of their clan and party interest. Md. Rezwanul Haque Masud and Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan draw our attention towards a set of pressing issues affecting campus life; i.e. the state of infrastructure, accommodation and food, academic environment, extracurricular activities, the role of Provosts and House Tutors and the state of student politics within the residential halls. Lailufar Yasmin starts her paper with conceptual issues of culture and examines the controversies of the so-called clash between the Bengalee and Muslim identities as reflected in the dresses that the students, especially females, wear. The author, however, finds that "being both a Muslim and a Bengali are no longer mutually exclusive categories."
The last three chapters (12, 13 and 14) of the volume focus on the historical and contemporary issues of governance of higher education in the country, Dhaka University in particular. Muhammad Yeahia Akhter sheds clear light on various kinds of corruption in the tertiary education sector, including in the admission process of students, and the recruitment of faculty and administrative staff, including the Vice Chancellors. The corruption, the author observes, is not just related to monetary transactions, but also to the political process of patron-clientelism that constantly violates the basic framework of governance as stipulated in the 1973 Dhaka University Order. In the paper 'The Making of a 'Political' University', Professor Amena Mohsin examines the process through which Dhaka University has been politicised. Starting off with a reference to the politics of elitist knowledge in colonial times, she argues that Bangladesh's major political parties use academic institutions to carry out their parochial party agendas in a game of power politics. Dr. Amena Mohsin's paper suggests that it is high time we came out of the meta-narratives of the 'glory' of student politics at the cost of academic excellence. The book concludes with the chapter 'A History of the Future' contributed by Iftekhar Iqbal, an emerging scholar and historian educated at Dhaka and Cambridge Universities. The author recalls the solid start of Dhaka University as an institution of higher learning and advanced research, making its existence felt not only in South Asia, but globally as well. Rather than comparing the University of Dhaka with other universities, Dr Iqbal compares it with its own historical self and suggests that the key to meaningful reforms of the university can be found within the institution itself.
Needless to mention that the University of Dhaka has a glorious past and it holds endless possibilities. We must not forget that the future of Bangladesh still lies with this institution. It is high time the university community, the government of Bangladesh and other stakeholders worked together for transforming the university into a centre of academic excellence as the nation is looking to the centenary celebrations of the University of Dhaka in 2021.
The writer is an independent researcher.
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