Achieving our higher education targets | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 25, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:43 AM, March 01, 2017

Achieving our higher education targets

That there has been a revolution of growth, expansion, and reach of higher education in Bangladesh is a reality. This is no longer a matter of debate, but a matter to reckon with. Currently 3.2 million students are enrolled in tertiary level education compared to only 31,000 in 1972. The total tertiary enrolment over the next decade (2016-2026) may reach 4.6 million according to an estimate made by the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh. Of the total number of students currently enrolled in tertiary level education, the theology based Islamic University (Fazil and Kamil Madrasas are affiliated with IU) accounts for 8.2 percent of total tertiary enrolment while the National University that is affiliated with all degree colleges of the country accounts for 72 percent. The 32 public universities and 84 private universities currently functioning together claim around 23 percent of the total number of students pursuing higher education. Set up in 1973 under a special Presidential Order when the country had only six public universities, four general and two specialised, UGC is the apex body that monitors the academic and administrative (partially) activities of these universities.

According to the United Nations and other estimates, 48 percent Bangladesh's total population of around 160 million is below the age of 24—a staggering figure of potential human resources much needed, not only for Bangladesh, but for developed countries also, where the total population is ageing very fast. The country's wealth lies in its youth, provided the youth can be turned into human resources with proper education, both technical and general. For this to be meaningful, a faster transformation must take place from certificate based education to knowledge based education, both explicit and tacit. Knowledge based education can only be delivered through the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the proper environment and with the right people. A certificate does not guarantee knowledge. It is just a piece of paper and is not worth the cost of paper it is printed on, until and unless its bearer can prove his or her worth. The present system is good for creating 'educated' certificate holders, but not productive human resources in most cases. The reasons are manifold. First, the belief that one must hold a university degree at any cost after he or she passes his or her higher secondary certificate course is misleading. The degree seeker spends four to five years chasing the degree, gets it, only to find out that in the real world, the degree is practically worthless in terms of the time and money the holder has spent for it.

In spite of the fact that tertiary level education does have some inbuilt and inherent problems, it can be corrected by overhauling the system. First, the management of tertiary level education should be left to educationists with experience and vision. Unnecessary interference by politicians in running these higher seats of learning must be stopped.

Capitalising on this attitude of the certificate chasers, there is a rush amongst universities and some colleges to offer degrees in business, but not in technical or vocational education. In Finland, a country known to have one of the finest education systems in the world, every student must take technical courses up to eighth grade. Someone who vies to get into the civil service can go to colleges for a bachelor's degree. Only school teachers need a master's and researchers have to have a PhD or equivalent.

In Bangladesh, the craze for a university degree can be self-defeating. When a Sanskrit or Arabic graduate looks for a job in a bank or the government, the big question is what good is the degree for jobs in these sectors? When we say we want to see Bangladesh become a middle income country by 2021, such mismatch has to change. Young people must be encouraged to go into technical and vocational education more. While establishment of new technical universities or vocational institutes is a step in the right direction, when these very institutions want to offer courses like business, then there is a problem.

Such universities must integrate liberal arts into their main courses, but there is no need for courses in liberal arts or social sciences in specialised technical universities. The good news is that in recent times there has been a quantitative change in the enrolment in technical and vocational universities or institutions (not only universities). 10 years back, only one percent of those who passed high school entered vocational or technical institutions. Currently, the figure stands at 14 percent. It is expected that at the rate at which enrolment is increasing, the figure may go up to 20 percent by 2021. This is a good sign. However, the worrying thing is the constant decline in enrolment in basic sciences. This is a global phenomenon, and if it does not change, the creation of new knowledge may prove difficult. Without the addition of new knowledge, the entire education system may start to collapse in the near future. 

The need for updating the curriculum at regular intervals must be acknowledged by universities. Knowledge in most disciplines is changing at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, in most cases, the curriculum in courses like medicine, technical subjects, information technology (IT), business and economics is dated and based on theories or practices which are either no longer valid or have become obsolete. The reasons for not updating the curriculum as and when needed are: (a) the need is not felt; (b) the additional resources needed are not available; and (c) teachers needed for delivery are not available.

Ironically, in Bangladesh, a fresh university graduate can instantly take up teaching without acquiring any training for teaching skills, assuming that a good and meritorious student translates into a good teacher. Such presumptions can prove fatal. To become a good teacher, necessary skills must be acquired through training, but sadly there is no scope for training university teachers. At the college level, the situation is somewhat better. At the tertiary level, especially in universities, one single critical problem can be identified—the lack of qualified and experienced teachers. Two probable ways to address the problem are to retain qualified retiring teachers with better benefits or to raise the retiring age of teachers. In many countries, certain professionals do not retire, teachers being one of them.

In developing curricula for job driven courses, there is no mechanism in place to have inputs from the industry or the employers in our universities. In such cases students may be spending their time and effort learning things no employer needs. Currently, there are 400,000 foreigners working in Bangladesh and siphoning out USD 5 billion annually. Eight million Bangladeshi expatriates working in the Middle East and other countries remit less than USD 14 billion annually. The only reason local employers employ foreigners is because they have the right type of education, skill and attitude.

Until 1992, university education in Bangladesh was provided by the state. Often the demand for university education outstripped supply. Hundreds of students would leave the country for higher studies, not necessarily enrolling in good institutions. There would be huge drainage of foreign exchange and many would return with sub-standard educations. Few entrepreneurs took the initiative to establish universities in the private sector. The government enacted a law in the parliament in 1992 (replaced by a new one in 2010) to establish such universities. The beginning was modest, and the intention of the promoters holy. A small number of students enrolled in the first few universities, but with the passage of time, things began to go out of control with the mushrooming of such universities across the country, many turning out to be fake universities selling degrees.

Many of these promoters refuse to believe that universities are meant for providing education and not for business. Because of such self-serving promoters, this potential sector now faces a credibility crisis. Unfortunately, these promoters often use the protection of politicians to mislead the admission seekers.

In spite of the fact that tertiary level education does have some inbuilt and inherent problems, it can be corrected by overhauling the system. First, the management of tertiary level education should be left to educationists with experience and vision. Unnecessary interference by politicians in running these higher seats of learning must be stopped.

In Bangladesh, the craze for a university degree can be self-defeating. When a Sanskrit or Arabic graduate looks for a job in a bank or the government, the big question is what good is the degree for jobs in these sectors? When we say we want to see Bangladesh become a middle income country by 2021, such mismatch has to change.

Most of our universities are absolutely inward-looking, having little or no interaction with the global community. Every university should have an international office, and promote their activities and academic achievements with international academia. UGC has already provided public universities with internet facilities and modern virtual classrooms that are connected via the Bangladesh Research and Education Network, whereby they can establish visual interactive contact amongst themselves and connect with any university or research organisation from around the world. Through the university digital library facility (UDL) installed at UGC, all universities, both public and private, now have access to more than 7,000 academic journals and reference books from internationally reputed publishers. The facility is available to both students and faculty members.

Regular updating of the curriculum has to be given the topmost priority, and wherever needed, there should be continual interaction between and amongst local and international researchers and the industry. One good way of doing this is to regularly organise national and international seminars besides motivating faculty members to attend similar events outside the country.

IT or computer literacy amongst young graduates in Bangladesh is far from satisfactory. According to the Global Competitiveness Index published by the World Economic Forum, amongst 138 countries, Bangladesh is ranked 106th in terms of IT competiveness. So much for 'Digital Bangladesh'. It is tragic that the concept of IT amongst the majority of computer users is confined to internet browsing or Facebook. Most top IT related jobs in this country are taken up by foreign IT experts. Some of the major public and private universities do not even feel the necessity of having their own dynamic website.

Without further delay, institutional facilities must be developed for the continuous training of university teachers. So far the focus has been on increasing the number of learners. Now it is time to pay more attention to the quality aspect of education. Compromising on quality will destroy all that we have achieved since independence.

One thing must be realised. Tertiary level education cannot reach global standards unless the lower level of the education pyramid is overhauled and restructured. Unnecessary examinations should be done away with and learning for the sole purpose of passing should be discouraged. It should be substituted with learning for knowledge and becoming competent. To that end, the budget earmarked for education has to be radically increased. Currently, less than 2 percent of the GDP is allocated for education, and 2 percent of that 2 percent goes to higher education. It is the lowest in all of South Asia. With this meagre allocation, not much can be done to improve higher education or promote technical and vocational learning.

UGC operates with a mandate that dates back to 1973, with limited autonomy, unlike similar statutory bodies anywhere in the world. Restricting the Commission to meet current needs was felt some 10 years back. UGC has been advocating for converting itself into a Higher Education Commission since 2008. The Prime Minister and the Education Minister were convinced back then, but nothing has happened so far.

The entire tertiary education system of the country must be viewed holistically. Piecemeal solutions will not take us far. Given the right experience, knowledge, skills, and education, these young people can become an invaluable source of wealth for the nation, and through them, the much talked about Vision 2021 and Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved. Let the policymakers realise it and give it a try. Things will change for the better.

The writer is the Chairman of the Bangladesh University Grants Commission (UGC).

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