Invest in intellectual excellence

The demand of public university teachers to have discriminatory provisions in the eighth pay scale rescinded and revised has been provisionally met, and the recommendations of the cabinet committee will most likely be accepted by the government. The teachers deserve our heartiest congratulations on their well-deserved victory. However, I am sure that their year-long movement was less about personal gain and more about improving the quality and relevance of higher education in Bangladesh.

In an opinion piece, "Question of status over academic excellence", published in TDS (January 19, 2016) at the height of the teacher's movement, I asked if mere restoration of parity with senior public servants would result in qualitative improvement in higher education. Will this stop the migration of teachers to more lucrative positions outside academia, and will it stem or reverse the intellectually debilitating brain drain? University academics have the responsibility to produce well trained professionals, researchers and teachers; is it not their duty to also ensure that their students employed outside academia are also happy with their circumstances? Can academic excellence in universities be achieved in isolation without improving standards at all levels of education? In my previous column, I welcomed the support that university teachers received from their students, colleagues and large sections of society, and hoped that they would use their new found unity across party lines to forge a united front with other teachers, students, professionals and researchers, and together with the government, strive to bring about structural changes required to achieve the development objectives of Vision 2021 and 2041.

Intellectual capital should be the corner stone for the socio-economic development of Bangladesh, and the biggest investment that Bangladesh can make in its own future would be to develop excellence in higher education underpinned by a strong science and technology base. This is not possible without priority funding of education at all levels, and the production of trained workforce relevant to the economic needs of Bangladesh. The expenditure in the education sector in Bangladesh is grossly inadequate for narrowing the ever-increasing knowledge and technology gap with advanced nations and for keeping pace with international trends and standards. Bangladesh spends less than 0.4 percent of GDP on R&D (90 percent of this for salaries and overheads), which is grossly inadequate for international competitiveness in research and innovation or to meet its long-term socio-economic objectives.

Bangladesh has over 400,000 students enrolled in tertiary institutions but still has a huge shortage of trained professionals. Even with such shortages, there is very substantial graduate unemployment and underutilisation of local skills, a real cause for alarm when tens of thousands of graduates from neighbouring countries are required to fill middle and senior technical positions in Bangladesh. This is clear evidence that there is a huge disconnect between what is required and what is produced in the higher education sector in Bangladesh. There is an urgent need to determine the type and numbers of professionals required now and in the middle to long term, and to accordingly restructure higher education so that it is need-based to produce adequate numbers of highly trained teachers, professionals and technologists for full employment in the different economic sectors. 

Here are a few suggestions for structural changes that senior academics, policymakers and industry leaders in Bangladesh may wish to consider for improving the quality of education by strengthening the science and technology base, and to use research and innovation to improve productivity and international competitiveness.

Total education funding for the foreseeable future needs to be doubled to at least 20 percent of the annual budget allocation, or at least 6 percent of annual GDP, of which a fourth should be reserved for higher education with emphasis on postgraduate research and innovation, and the training of teachers, researchers and professionals. The R&D expenditure (excluding salaries and institutional overheads) should amount to at least 2 percent of GDP till such time that the gap with developed countries is substantially narrowed.  

Most universities and institutions of higher education should concentrate primarily on producing well-trained teachers for different levels and types of education, and for producing technology, health and agriculture professionals. (Teachers who take on additional teaching loads should not be disadvantaged for lack of research productivity). An incentive scheme could be instituted to reward active researchers based on research productivity (publications, citations, patents), and for successful technology transfer to industry. 

Research funds in the higher education budget should be substantially increased for supporting postgraduate and postdoctoral research, and for adequate funding of a limited number of designated Research Universities. A large pool of doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships should be created to provide a critical mass of full time researchers in academic and research institutions. The rich pool of NRB academics and researchers could be encouraged to help develop and support research capacity in Bangladesh. 

A National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC) should be established to support postgraduate research, various research fellowships, academia-industry partnerships and technology transfer. To pool and coordinate resources and activities, the NRIC could be jointly managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the UGC or the Higher Education Commission.

The NRIC should support and coordinate research in areas of national priority and provide special funding through National Collaborative Research Programmes to multidisciplinary collaborations between researchers from academia, research institutions and industry. The NRIC should establish, for all S&T-based researchers, a National Platform for Cutting Edge Technologies (such as in contemporary biotechnologies and IT) for bridging the very wide "R&D chasm" that exists between discovery research and product development. The NRIC should also house a one-stop Technology Transfer Office to provide support and advice on matters such as IP generation and protection, regulatory guidelines, academia-industry partnerships, and drafting of commercial contracts.

Industry funding for research, and partnerships with industry, could be encouraged through tax concessions to companies investing in development research in academic and industrial research institutions. Adequate funding of education and R&D, coordinated scientific research in areas of national priority and academia-industry partnerships will prove to be the main instruments for Bangladesh's sustained economic development.

The writer, a retired Professor of Medical Biotechnology, provides pro bono support and advice to academic and industry colleagues to help develop biotech research capacity in Bangladesh.
Email: [email protected]


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