Let the question of global rankings of Bangladesh's universities be put aside for the moment. Not that rankings are not important. They are, for these rankings are a measure of how our higher educational institutions fare or have fared at the international level.
For now, beyond all this debate about our embarrassment at not being able to make a mark in those rankings --- our public as well as private universities continue to fail these tests --- we need to focus, in our own interest, on what needs to be done to raise academic standards in the country.
The very first area of concern we need to deal with is the low allocation usually prescribed in the annual national budgets for education. Where Unesco clearly prescribes no less than six per cent of GDP to be given over to education in a country, successive governments in Bangladesh have by and large never gone beyond a two per cent allocation for the sector. Indeed, in the budget announced in parliament last week, the education component of it remains less than two per cent. It is 1.83 per cent of GDP.
That begs the question: how then do we expect our universities, with this paltry sum, to go for a qualitative or quantum leap in academic excellence, especially at the public ones? The sector has been given Tk 81,499 crore --- or a mere 12 percent of the total budget outlay. That is not a sum to be happy about, is it?
And yet we cannot go on complaining about the budgetary allocation for education, for there are all the other ailments which have consistently dogged our universities. In recent times, we have had the unsavoury experience of vice chancellors at public universities being accused of financial corruption and nepotism. Such tales are indicative of an unmistakable lowering of standards where appointments of VCs are concerned.
And then comes the rather disturbing factor of political partisanship taking centre stage in the community of university academics. It remains our lasting pain that some of the best of men, intellectual powerhouses at public universities, have regularly been sidelined every time windows of opportunities to serve as VCs have opened up. Vice chancellors noted for their controversial roles or remarks have damaged the chances of our universities coming level with the rest of the world.
Reverting to the issue of teachers' political loyalties, the propensity of a large section of academics over the last couple of decades to uphold partisanship in the corridors of universities has badly affected their ability to conduct research and inspire their students into exploring visions of the world through the prism of intellectual ambitions. University administration has taken a beating.
Where research is an essential criterion for universities, both for teachers and students, the reality has been pretty disconcerting for us. Not much, indeed insignificant, has been on the table where writing papers of a global standard and speaking for Bangladesh at conferences abroad is the issue. The waters have often been muddied by academics who have felt little of embarrassment in indulging in plagiarism and getting caught in the act by scholars at home and abroad.
A major factor in the decline of our public universities has been the increasing predominance of student politics, in its violent form, on the campus. Where in earlier times student organisations engaged in progressive intellectual debate to the point of articulating the aspirations of the nation, the picture is a messy one today. With members of rival student organisations, armed and literally pursuing one another as a way of propagating their various brands of politics and often stooping to the lowliness of physical assaults on one another, is it any wonder that our public universities are given short shrift abroad?
A plenitude of universities dots the landscape of higher education in the country. Of the 157 universities in Bangladesh --- and more could be on the way --- 50 are in the public sector, with the remaining 107 being in the private arena. While we do have the many grievances regarding the public universities, we also have some very legitimate questions about the quality of teaching provided at the ubiquity of private universities.
How many of these private universities offer the best of education to the young men and women who flock to them every year? And then focus on their teaching staff. A fairly good number of academics employed at many of these universities happen to have been poached from public universities which, one could reasonably argue, is clearly to the detriment of the public universities. This inability on the part of private universities to have in place their own regime of teachers has been a drawback for private university education.
Add to the story the propensity of some private universities to recruit foreign teachers to serve on their staff. Some institutions have been known for hiring vice chancellors from overseas. That does not place these universities in good light. And then comes the critical question of the expenses borne by guardians whose wards happen to be students at the private universities.
If all of that falls in the zone of darkness, there is that other worry too --- about private universities not being permitted to conduct PhD courses for their students. If private universities, at least the better equipped and better performing ones, possess the requisite number of academics qualified to guide the young through PhD courses, why should they be held back from doing so?
In plain speak, Bangladesh's universities are in paramount need of reinvention. That calls for serious rethink on the part of the government in the matter of a sizable increase inthe allocation for education. Excellence cannot be expected in an absence of resources.
At the public universities, chairs dedicated to a string of subjects that test the intellectual acumen of students need to be established. Schools of thought in the names of national luminaries --- academics, economists, politicians, journalists, writers --- will go a long way in revitalizing the universities. Inviting visiting scholars from home and abroad will add to quality.
At the private universities, similar endeavours could form part of the academic structure. Care ought to be taken, though, that education imparted at these universities avoids being classified as elitist in form and substance. Besides, the admissions process at the private universities ought to be made stringent in a manner similar to the process applied at the public universities.
Our collective worry need not be about the place of our universities in global rankings per se. It ought to be about the need for a wholesale recasting of education at our universities --- through the presence of modern curricula, dedicated and committed teachers and knowledge-seeking young men and women.
Mediocrity or a laidback attitude will do us no good. Every university in this country should be a point of light.