Dhaka University will be a hundred years old next year. The enthusiasm that will go into the celebrations of its centenary are already being felt, a broad hint of it being the manner in which current and former alumni cheerfully observed its 99th founding anniversary on the first day of July.
The university, for all the impediments which have come its way in recent times, remains the nation's premier institution of higher learning. Indeed, there are people who fondly refer to it as the Oxford of the East, even if that reputation has taken a good deal of battering over the years for reasons that ought to be obvious.
Certainly the greatest tribute which can be paid to Dhaka University comes associated with its past. And one of course must begin through recalling the endeavours of men like Nawab Salimullah, who remains a point of reference in any discussion of the university. Mention needs to be made too of the British colonial power, for in its annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1911, it offered the consolation of a promise of a university for eastern Bengal.
Since 1921, therefore, Dhaka University has come a long way. It has weathered many a storm, has created history at nearly every turn and has produced scholars who have gone out into the wider world seeking to disseminate the Bengali scholarly and cultural ethos across the globe.
And yet the reputation of a university rests not merely on past laurels but on present achievements. In these past many years, the placement of Bangladesh's universities among the notable institutions of higher learning on the global scale has been frustrating, for that placement has not been there at all.
It has been particularly galling for Dhaka University, indeed for those who have taken pride in its past, to be informed that it has no place in the world's intellectual spaces. Lack of research, absence of world class education, a preponderance of politics and a general sense of lethargy has appeared to undermine the university.
That leads one to a crucial point, which is that Dhaka University needs to reinvent itself. But reinvention is not a proposition that can be put into implementation mode as soon as it is mouthed. There are the difficulties along the way, if one has cared to observe the recent budget for public universities announced by the University Grants Commission. The Tk 84.85 billion e budget for 2020-21 covers 46 public universities. Of the amount, Dhaka University is the recipient of slightly over Tk 8.30 billion, which is the biggest chunk when compared to the amount handed out to the remaining 45 universities. The problem comes in with the allocation for research, in all these public universities. A mere Tk 660 million has been doled out for research in higher education.
And that indeed is where the public universities are stymied. For years academics and education experts have argued for a decent quantum of money to be thrown into research.
In fact, in an era where education should be among the topmost priorities in public planning, our schools, colleges and universities have remained on the fringes of policy considerations. Now take this Tk 660 million and try working out a scheme for research. And remember this amount is for all 46 public universities. How much of it, then, can Dhaka University expect to get for itself? And to what degree will that suffice for meaningful research for the university?
A general complaint about Dhaka University insofar as its absence on the scale of global rankings is concerned has been its sheer poverty in terms of research. The new allocation only maintains the disturbing status quo.
Yet Dhaka University needs to link its present with its past. The past, unquestionably political in nature and therefore contributory to the making of national history, was also defined by scholarly pursuits on the watch of a large number of its vice chancellors. It is on the basis of that past that the present ought to be shaped, at both the individual levels of the various departments of the university and the collective endeavours of the university as a whole.
Obviously encouraging is the presence of a vibrant presence of students, a heritage that surely must not wither way. Equally remarkable has been the crop of teachers generationally coming forth with ideas commensurate with the times. It is such energy which needs harnessing, through opening up the departments --- in the humanities, sciences, et cetera --- to explorations of newer concepts. Dhaka University is today in need of an explosion of energy that can truly restore its erstwhile reputation as the Oxford of the East.
As it enters its hundredth year, Dhaka University must catch up with the times. Good, purposeful libraries in the departments, apart from the central library of the university, equipped with the most modern works and treatises on the subjects covered by the institution are an imperative. Perhaps the time is here for the university to explore the possibilities of purposeful schools -- and here the role of the government as also of public intellectuals will be important --- in the humanities, sciences and social sciences --- being set up.
Universities are places for the pursuit of merit. Journals rich in content ---in medicine, physics, engineering, literature, politics, history, philosophy, law, international relations, et cetera --- and published periodically and regularly can only heighten the appeal of Dhaka University on a global scale. Additionally, teachers' unions and students' unions should reconfigure themselves in the larger interest of both the university administration and general students' welfare.
Dhaka University is part of history. Its glory days have covered the period from 1948 through 1952 through 1962 through 1969 and all the way to 1971. Post-liberation, it has been a powerful symbol of resistance to all manner of authoritarian politics. Its students and teachers have suffered and died in some of the darkest moments of the nation's history.
Dhaka University goes on embodying the aspirations of the nation as it lights the spark of intellectual inquiry in the young men and women who today occupy its classrooms, looking beyond the present and peering into the future.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is writer and senior journalist.