Meritocracy and academic excellence at private universities
Meritocracy is a social system in which people get recognition or reward because of their ability, talent and effort, rather than wealth, class privilege or family background. In this system, individuals succeed because of demonstrated competency and achievements, rather than for their inherited status or patronage ties. Merit refers to a particular quality, of intelligence-plus-effort. The idea of meritocracy is not new—it is often associated with the Confucian mode of state management.
Today, because it can promote an equal-opportunity society that allows the best minds to thrive, the application of meritocratic system is more or less assumed as a best practice in all arenas. Meritocracy has a special place in managing universities. Among other things, departure from meritocracy is said to be a prime reason for campus unrest in public universities. In this article, I briefly discuss its applicability in private universities of Bangladesh.
As institutions of higher learning, two of the most important missions of universities are to produce knowledge for social progress, and to produce highly skilled graduates and professional leaders able to contribute to national development. To this end, a good university must not only hire the best professors, it must also admit the most promising and competitive students.
In a meritocratic system the university needs to institutionalise a system of recruiting the best quality professors and students. It should also hire professional managers and competent administrative staff to help the faculty discharge their duties, and provide students with necessary logistic support. Now the big question is: what is the best way of such recruitment? I believe private universities will do better if they adhere to the principles of meritocracy while recruiting vice-chancellors, scholars, teachers, students and staff.
Meritocracy requires assessment of intelligence, education, accumulated training enrichment, professionalism, leadership quality and demonstrated achievements. Although some element of subjectivity may be unavoidable, the measure or assessment of merit should be as objective as possible.
Currently, the rules for recruitment are in some ways inconsistent with the system of meritocracy. For instance, since the vice-chancellor holds the highest rank with greatest responsibility, the search committee should demand the highest academic degree, Ph.D. However, the Private University Act 2010 does not require the vice-chancellors to hold Ph.D. This logically contradicts the principles of meritocracy.
The 2010 Act stipulates that to become vice-chancellor, one needs 10 years teaching and 10 years administrative experience in similar positions. If several candidates have identical qualifications, then the search committee needs to look for additional achievements, for example, demonstrated leadership quality, fundraising capabilities, etc. No personal favour, family wealth or political connections are to be considered.
Occasionally, in universities, meritocracy is ignored for non-meritocratic reasons. For example, the vice-chancellor is selected through popularity test. In public universities, a panel of three potential vice-chancellors is elected by the Senate members' votes. The chancellor appoints one of them vice-chancellor based more or less on the number of votes the individual candidate receives. This way, meritocracy does not play any major role.
Meritocracy does not compromise with the requirement of education, achievements, job-experience, and competency. They, however, vary from position to position. While selecting teachers from professors down to lecturers emphasis should be given on academic qualifications; demonstrated ability; achievements like quality papers published in quality journals; patents; scientific inventions; prestigious awards; recognised research, etc. If teacher with lower academic achievements is hired rejecting one with much better qualifications, i.e., if meritocracy is ignored, then academic excellence is bound to go down. Unfortunately, such things happen in low grade private universities.
Some private universities however require Ph.D. if a candidate seeks the post of assistant professor or higher. This is in line with meritocracy because it demands higher education and additional achievements for higher position. In case of promotion from lower to higher rank the quality and quantity of publications, patents and additional achievements like proactive leadership are desirable.
In appointing deans, departmental chairs and programme directors, most universities use a system of rotation that is incompatible with meritocracy. Rotation depends on the seniority of service in the department. One can be senior-most in the department only by teaching and doing nothing else. As per departmental rules, s/he can be chairperson without any administrative experience. This is not compatible with meritocracy. Because of this, the department tends to run at low operational efficiency.
Meritocracy is most challenged while enrolling students. For most private universities, revenue trumps student quality. Ultimately, universities admit disproportionately more poor quality students, leading to more poor quality graduates. Thus, refusal or inability to institutionalise meritocracy pushes down the quality and reputation of the university.
It should be noted that adherence to absolute meritocracy creates unintended negative impact; the system tends to admit a small number of good students but denies access to thousands of equally 'brilliant' admission seekers. Results of the post secondary public examinations demonstrate that thousands of Golden GPA 5 students who are equally talented and meritorious do not get admission. The latter can be divided into two groups: (i) those with the ability to pay for all expenses but whose admission is denied because of lack of additional capacity of the university; and (ii) those who are meritorious but cannot afford tuition and other fees. It is difficult to ascertain whether the admitted students are better.
To run the universities on the basis of meritocracy, the university will have to create additional seats matching the number of meritorious admission seekers. In the second case, adequate scholarships must be provided for financially disadvantaged students. Given our experiences, provision of so many scholarships is unlikely to happen.
The above implies that universities can take advantage of meritocracy only partially. More importantly, adherence to meritocracy continues to increase the divide between the financially advantaged and disadvantaged persons. For societal balance remedial measures are essential.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, Brac University.
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