The University of Dhaka, the oldest and largest one in the present Bangladesh, started its journey on the first day of July, 1921. Its role in nation formation and the emergence of independent Bangladesh is a widely discussed issue. The fact is beyond all disputes. Dhaka University is the only institution in the world where the students raised the flag of an independent nation. The event occurred on March 2, 1971, and the new flag was later passed on to the national leaders. The birth of Bangladesh cannot be imagined without taking into consideration the glorious role of this university and the great and supreme sacrifices made by its students and teachers. Since its inception, the university has also carved out a distinctive character by producing scores of scholars, many of whom have enriched the global pool of knowledge. They have made notable contributions to the diverse fields of education and research. Although at one point it gained the reputation of being the 'Oxford of the East', the premier university of the land had in the later decades lost much of its glory. This decline unleashed serious negative implications for the state and society. Researches were undertaken to find out the reason for this dismal development. Academics were seen engaged in endeavours to find out if there was any effective way out of this impasse.
In the book 'University of Dhaka: Making Unmaking Remaking', the authors attempt to provide a remedy for this adverse situation. In their task, they have brought into their focus various areas ranging from student politics and youth mobilisation to teachers' politics and the issues of higher education, pedagogy and curriculum, governance, sanitation, housing, security, cultural practices and many others.
Contributed by both young and revered academics and scholars, the book identifies the fundamental challenges that the premier university of Bangladesh has been facing and the ways to overcome them in order to regain its academic standing nationally as well as globally. The publication, containing fourteen chapters, is indeed a combined product of the Department of History and the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University. The book begins with Professor Abdul Momin Chowdhury's in-depth study which depicts a broad picture of downward shifts that have taken place during his teaching career in fundamental academic areas at the University. The areas include the residential system, tutorial practice, recruitment of students and teachers, governance, language of instruction, research and so on. For Momin Chowdhury, the deterioration in today's Dhaka University stems from the teaching staff's declining relationship with students, negligence of English as the medium of instruction, 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 word of 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 next three chapters (2, 3 and 4) of the book focus on the issue of student politics and youth mobilisation. All the chapters provide an outline of the historical evolution of student politics, but also take different yet complementary perspectives on the subject. Professor Syed Munir Khasru and Md. Tahmid Zami's chapter 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 problem 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 terms 'Ruling Party Student Organisation (RPSO)' phenomenon. 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 existing representative institutional structure under the umbrella of the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU).
Curriculum and pedagogical issues are discussed in the chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8. In the paper 'Problems and Prospects of Higher Education', Atonu Rabbani emphasises the need for appropriately trained teachers, advanced research and capacity building in order to quickly take Bangladesh's still unique advantage of "demographic dividend" to "exploit the productive capacity of the new workforce". Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan and Mohammad Abul Kawsar examine liberal arts, humanities and social sciences curriculum. 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 'informed' the curricula and content of the course. 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 would maximally promote and sustain university teaching-learning activities.
The next three chapters deal with the issues related to the social life at 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. He notes the dominance of what he calls 'party-demics' in place of academics who influence all of campus life 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 dormitories. Lailufar Yasmin starts her paper with conceptual issues of culture and examines the controversies of so-called tension between the 'Bengali and Muslim identity' 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 book 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 officials of universities, including the Vice Chancellors. 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.
The book concludes with the chapter 'A History of the Future' contributed by Dr. Iftekhar Iqbal. 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 position and suggests that the key to meaningful reforms in the university can be found within the institution itself.
Needless to mention that Dhaka University 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 institution into a centre of academic excellence as the nation is looking forward to the centenary celebrations of the University of Dhaka in 2021.
S.M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.
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