Any scenario of 2071, the year Bangladesh celebrates the centennial of its independence, is an imaginary situation but we still can dream of progress and then start pursuing whatever people want to achieve. At 100, we hope, this country becomes one of the known faces in the domain of intellect and its university graduates demonstrate quality education.
The names of Bangladeshi universities are competing with the proverbial ones like Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Stanford as included in the list of top universities ranked by the world’s influential publishers. International journals like Nature, Science, Genetica’s publishing lists are showing names of Bangladeshi authors. Foreign students are getting attracted to having higher education in Bangladesh.
At home, serious students and faculties are getting enough funding for research, high-tech and friendly environment, rich study materials, websites enriched with information, upgraded library facilities and so on to focus on study.
This may not be the immediate future picture of our universities – neither public nor private – but it’s not that we aren’t capable of achieving those goals and dreams. Yes, we can look at the barriers that affect Bangladesh’s higher education and research the moment the nation is celebrating the 50th year of independence.
These are some of the questions that may often come to the minds of the concerned people, who think about the educational situation and future of the nation’s intellectual pursuit for which the universities are called the drivers.
From dreams to reality
The high hopes may get nipped in the bud when one scrolls eyes on the lists of world rankings published in recent years. The QS world ranking, published in 2020, shows only Dhaka University (DU) and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) among the top 1000 universities around the world.
In the QS Asian regional ranking DU was placed at 134th, and BUET was at 199th. However, seven private universities such as North-South University, BRAC University, Independent University of Bangladesh, Daffodil University, East-West University, and American International University of Bangladesh got placed within top 650 in the Asia region. The scenario is pretty much the same in case of other influential rankings.
Defining a world class university
Though the rankings are not the only measurement of being ‘world-class’ universities and there is no ultimate definition for that, the criteria considered for those rankings are part and parcel of being a fruitful and productive university demonstrated by the core concept of university.
While ranking universities, they consider excellence of education, research works, citation of the research works, foreign students’ presence and websites’ richness and reputation in the job market. It’s said that universities ought to produce knowledge, not to teach only like coaching centres. Research is the major field where a university marks its academic excellence.
“There is no concrete formula for a university to be designated as 'world-class.' Since the very concept of a world-class university is ambiguous, the criteria for a university to be world-class are elusive too. I believe there is no single model of excellence. But there are certainly a few pointers to help us formulate an idea of a world-class university,” noted Noor E Jannat Meem, a lecturer of English Literature at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet.
A common understanding is that a world-class university is an academic institution providing quality higher education in a range of disciplines. According to Noor E Jannat Meem, a world-class university is an institution of academic excellence fostering an intensive teaching-learning environment and cutting-edge research potential which in turn depends on the balanced ratio of a cohort of accomplished academic staff to a competent body of students.
For a university to be world-class, it should not only be evaluated based on what it teaches but also what experiences it has got to offer its students. Thus, a balance between what teachings a student gets and what experiences a student undergoes is vital to equip a student with the calibre to face the world.
Furthermore, a world-class university should nurture a spirit of internationalism. Such a university should not only restrict itself to solely serving national needs. It must have an international standing not only to attract the best talents in the world, but also to further international interests, explains Ms Jannat.
“I would like to underscore a so far undermined factor –financial resources. I believe the aforementioned criteria do operate effectively when the university can ensure significant financial support.”
Research, where we lag the most
The picture of our research field is doleful. According to the annual report of University Grants Commission (UGC) 2019, 125 public and private universities in the country spent an aggregate amount of Tk 153 crore for research, a meager Tk1.22 crore each, which is only around 1.0 per cent of their total expenditure.
However, official reports suggest, the amount of investment in research in private universities like BRAC, ULAB and AIUB is higher than public universities like BSMAU, BAU and DU.
In addition, the number of published research papers is decreasing every year. In 2016, the rate of research papers was 20 per cent, which came down to 0.3 per cent in 2020, says a report published by a news portal.
“The present condition of research works is not very significant. There is not enough funding in the universities for quality research,” said M Javed Kaisar Ibne Rahman, assistant professor of anthropology at SUST.
On various occasions, we have seen many potential innovations that could not go further because of limited funding. He thinks there are many talented faculties in universities who have a great vision and knack for research. But they are failing to do so due to financial constraints.
“The government should allocate the budget for research and labs in every university and provide necessary facilities to publish the research works for the global audiences. Besides, the universities should gain more access to foreign libraries and journals, so that local scholars can be informed about contemporary research and knowledge around the world,” he insisted.
Apathy to academic knowledge
A common problem, which started creating problems relating to acquiring knowledge on the campus decades ago, has turned into a serious issue by this time. "Currently, students don't read textbooks anymore. They just want to pass out by reading ready notes. They have no interest in the original book, which is a big crisis," said professor of Bangla department at Dhaka University Syed Azizul Huq.
In this context, he blames the overall environment. This is more natural than unusual as students start preparing for civil service exams from second or third year at university. They practice arithmetic, develop general knowledge, increase knowledge about current affairs just hoping for a job. Their Bachelor’s degree and academic studies all go ignored.
And because of the job market’s nature in our country, in most cases, students are not getting a career related to their studies. Since academic studies mostly do not help them secure a job other than confirming a validation to compete in the job market, most students remain restless for a job from the beginning of their higher education.
Setting the goal of universities
The purpose of establishing a university should not be only to award Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, a certificate that recognises a student to sit for a job exam. If this had to be the purpose, it could be well served through other institutions. Universities should be research-oriented educational institutions.
"The economic crisis that exists around the world, the tendency of people to run after the market economy or money is acting as another influence on them – they become research-averse,” adds professor Huq.
A point to ponder over is the economic crisis that leads students to the addiction to earning money. A sense of economic insecurity is driving every student away from studies in pursuit of real education that is gaining knowledge.
“Students suffer from economic insecurity in society. Research-oriented higher education would not seem like an impractical ambition to them if society could ensure their economic security."
It is said that there is a crisis of skilled manpower as our graduates are generally not competent enough. On one hand, they are not able to go into their profession being skilled due to lack of proper education, on the other, they are not opting for higher education ceasing to be an option.
Indeed, it is not necessary to get a Master's degree for every job, but students are being forced. As a result, the quality of higher education is declining to ensure degrees for a higher number of students.
Our education system could be such that every student could pass higher secondary exams and enter technical studies, as is the case with students in medical and engineering universities.
Leaving these two fields and looking at the others, the picture is discouraging as students neither get technical knowledge in their four years’ graduation, nor could they be interested in research.
Achieving the ideals
The universities which prevail in the kingdom of intellect and quality education give their students and faculties numerous upgraded facilities that are not sufficiently provided in our universities According to Mr Kaisar’s view, there should be certain criteria for providing a world-class dimension to any university.
The university would be able to provide a significant amount of financial support which is essential to pay salaries that are required to attract and retain the leading scholars across the world. The university should allow scholars in the specific field to come forward, to teach, or involve in research for various periods.
The university would be able to provide sufficient grants for contributing to research for humankind. The university should not allow tenure to all the teachers unless they have a significant contribution to their field of study. Then teachers would be intellectually more invested in academic practices.
The university should also have a genuinely intimate and intensive academic environment for students, where they would be able to build an engaging relationship with leading academic staff and innovate new and critical ideas. In this case, the university must assure that no students are deprived in any condition and ensure the rights of students and staff.
Again, universities should be international which would allow people across the globe. A campus with people from various cultures, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and knowledge can offer a better academic environment, and a respectful attitude towards each other.
The university should not think within a specific geographic location; instead, it should think across national borders. One of the major criteria should be the leader of the university. Who is going to lead the university and how visionary the leader is, can change a lot of things on the campus. A great leader can bring great scholars to the campus for a better academic environment.
The red-tape and excessive committees can cause a lot of damage to universities. It slows everything down, affects innovation, weakens motivation, and reduces research time and, therefore, quality.
For a world class university, these should be eradicated and they go through a systematic process. If a university can meet such criteria, we may consider the university as a ‘World Class University’.
Strengthening complementary institutions
If any other institute is considered as a supplement to reach that goal, Bangladesh’s UGC could be the one. UGC has the authority to govern and advise various aspects of a university. Besides UGC, there should be civil society organisations that can locate the problems of a university and their limitations. There should be some training institutes for young scholars to help them gain skills and intellect.
Moreover, if we observe deeply, primary education is the most important education level of any country. It should be shaped in such a manner where all the citizens regardless of the social and economic class are taught under a similar curriculum.
In our primary education, the teaching method is not interactive. It is essential to appoint talented and well-trained teachers at this level with a very good salary along with making the process interactive and interesting. Japan could be an example of how the East Asian country trains its primary children and how its teachers take classes in the schools.
Hoping to achieve the ideals in practice is an ambitious venture. But there is nothing wrong with nurturing such a fine ambition.
Standing at the 50th birthday, Bangladesh’s education has come a long way facing many difficulties en route. From here, it can only go upwards and to create a future that will be worth watching during the 100th birthday of the nation.
SirajumMunira is currently studying English Literature at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet.