When a country has more than a hundred universities, how those universities anchor their vision upon their declared missions gives us an idea of the future mileage of that country. Though 'vision' statements tend to be loftier than usual, how the mission components are themselves anchored tells us of the degree of that university's viability. Negotiating at least two trip-wires helps shed light on the capacity of each university, and thereby the net country effect, to deliver: what developmental stage is the country in at the time of the varsity boom; and how we distinguish profit-making universities from their knowledge-enhancing counterparts. This is not to say profits and intellectual advancements cannot coexist (but typically pressure-points from one tramples the other over the long haul); nor that universities and state-building have to be related (note, how many missionary establishments were established far before 'development' became a state policy-making thrust, or even the term 'multi-functional' was defined).
In the early developmental stages, schools need to be nurtured and shielded, tasks that patronising organisations, historically representing religion or the state, have undertaken. University growth in numbers and intellectual capacities increasingly become functions of the society's modernisation process: new jobs require prior training, and therefore shape new curricula; and those new jobs themselves depict the society beginning to diversify its traditional moorings. Obviously, the more the development, the greater the varsity demands. If that development is confined to limited sectors, such as the ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh, university training cannot but be inclined, at least slightly, in that direction. For instance, emphasising textiles or fashion will become the tendency, spilling over into business schools, since enterprise-growth immediately launches accounting, management, marketing, and international business needs, among others.
There must exist many such sectors to have irreversible country-wide development effects, in turn opening numerous outlets for new academic/scholarly training. Diversification must become a part of this upper-end developmental thrust, and it is with that that technological needs, transformation, and training open up innovative windows. Bangladesh's RMG sector is about as healthy as any in the world today, but two of its dominant characteristics neither invite innovation, nor remains friendly with innovation: a low-wage pre-requisite for 21st century success when automated counterparts can wipe out many labour jobs; and the inheriting production processes, going as far back as to the late-18th century, a dynamic that has undoubtedly improved over the centuries, rather than innovating, if only for survival purposes. Against that background, the low-development-few-university package received its spurt in two ways: massive government-financed universities, the so-called 'public' sector; and since the economic catalyst to break out of traditional society also implies private enterprise engagement, the spurt of private universities. This is the 'growth' phase of universities: the government, with more cash at hand, expanding education sectors, largely laterally than escalating within any chosen discipline (what purpose would such upper-level education serve, in this case?), or private enterprises, to either train students for skills their business or society needs, or to make outright personal profit from the educational business opportunities.
Over 100 private universities dot Bangladesh at a time of beginning its second economic transformation (from a low-income society to middle-income, for instance, in distinction to the first of shifting from agriculture to low-wage manufacture). The country might be caught flat-footed by a swifter, more secular simultaneous global shift from the Third Industrial Revolution to the Fourth, that is, from computer-based intellectual acrobatics to artificial intelligence-based ballets, from a predictable 3G to a mesmerising 5G labyrinth. Public universities will need increasing dosages of financial support just to hang on, and many private universities will not survive the competition based on the specified missions propping up each vision. Those private universities that survive this free-for-all clash will be the ones who angled their missions differently: the more diverse the curriculum, the more likely its capacity to transform. Only for those select few private universities and amply-funded universities will Farnam Jahanian's 4 (four) propositions for varsity survival and competitiveness apply (see Scopus, September 27, 2019): fostering entrepreneurship; encouraging collaboration with the private sector; promoting diversity and inclusion; and exploring the nexus between technology and science. Let's examine these 4 again, this time from a varsity angle with a Bangladesh playground.
Both the first and second expose the dire need for public-private partnership, unfortunately at the long-term expense of the public: the more diversified the economic motors of the country, the greater the entrepreneur's need for differentiated skills, skills whose inculcation the private entrepreneur will even pay for. Bangladesh has to go through this diversified phase if it is to become a developed country by 2040, as it is planning to; and because it does, it has no choice but to begin that training from now. Not many universities will have the expertise, or the cash, to do so now, but those that do and have foresight, will emerge as the educational leaders. They will be in the private sector since not only is the need there the most, but public universities often carry far too many obligatory pedagogical purposes to fulfil (like promoting the Bangla language, enhancing the fundamental skills more broadly, providing English-language platforms, remembering history and culture, and so forth): private universities can (and have) dispense(d) with some of these, but how far they can go to propel innovation remains unclear. Under a RMG umbrella, there was no need to innovate, but without 5G or Fourth Industrial Revolution innovations, the development powder might run dry too soon.
Promoting diversity and inclusion, the third proposition, also happens to be better suited for public universities than private, since the latter have the choice to remain too selective to instantly enhance those outcomes. Gender, the biggest diversity/inclusion hurdle for countries like Bangladesh, has been confronted admirably for long, but notwithstanding not so stellar outcomes in this regard. Bangladesh seems committed to gender rebalancing at all levels since this is a public university priority, not private, thorns of varied sorts remain, such as child-bearing and family-raising obligations than just cannot be modified in our society as they have been elsewhere. Private sector universities will not be helpful here since gender differentials will only be treated like a market commodity: have demand, will supply.
It is perhaps the last proposition, elevating the technology-society nexus, where the future of Bangladeshi universities may lie. Before automation enters the classroom (another dynamic electrifying private enterprises from extracting educational profits), what kind of business-university relationship is struck may determine the architecture of future Bangladesh education: governments will have to cough up too much cash to sustain universities as other demands, like SDG (sustainable developmental goals) commitments and megaproject building draw upon them, to carry the educational burden much farther; and unless universities get the right kind of benevolent, rather than extractive, entrepreneurship to uphold them, in fact, drive them into innovation, we may be seeing the twilight of education as we have known it to be.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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