Refining the recruitment process for public universities?
On the basis of a letter issued by the University Grants Commission, the Ministry of Education has circulated a notification recommending the introduction of two drastic steps for the recruitment of academics in public universities. According to the wording of the letter, it was originated from the confidential intelligence report from government agencies. One of the recommendations is the introduction of a written test so that the irregularities of a viva-voce centric recruitment test can be reduced. The other is the recommendation of a police verification process to assess whether or not a candidate is engaged in criminal or anti-government activities. Possibly not many informed or even not so informed quarters would agree that the recruitment system in public universities in Bangladesh is not as credible as it was a few decades ago.
It is more or less common knowledge that the core problem with the recruitment process is that it is heavily influenced by non-academic considerations. Unfortunately, the vagaries of some examiners sitting in the recruitment committee of public universities are more than just isolated instances. Despite that being the case, the core problem is not that the recruiters are ill-equipped to make proper selections. Most of the flawed selections are the outcome of a subjective process driven by political and other extra-academic motivations. Thus, if a viva-voce centric selection process is biased or unreliable, it is not understandable to what extent a written test to be conducted by the same set of people would be any more reliable. This is all the more so because the candidates in a written test would be assessed on their mastery of the academic discipline; generic skills and knowledge tested in the selection process for most government jobs should not have a place in the proposed written test.
This write-up would rather argue that if the process has to be changed, it should be changed in a different way. Apart from politics and other extra-academic issues, a problem with the recruitment process in public universities is that it heavily relies on academic results of the candidate. But almost all of the world's best universities would rather put much more emphasis on the research potential and record of the applicant. The rank of the applicant in her/his graduating class would be a factor (that too only for entry-level positions) but would rarely be a decisive factor in the recruitment process. Another problem with the process is lack of emphasis on the applicant's ability to orally communicate her/his ideas if not to the public at least to her/his potential students and peers. But it is argued that the pedagogical methodologies may be learned through experience and training. Probably the same cannot be said about the aptitude for research. Indeed, it has been decried by many, including the Honourable Minister of Education, that universities in our country are insufficiently contributing to the creation of knowledge and responding to the needs of ivory towers beyond academia. It would be submitted that the lack of funding partially accounts for this. But less than required emphasis on research (particularly regarding quality) is another factor that is causing this.
Possibly, the other recommendation, which is the need to identify the engagement of a candidate in anti-government activities, has stemmed from the practice of the same sort of scrutiny in the process of the recruitment of government officers. It is surprising that a patently clear distinction in the job description between a bureaucrat and an academic has been ignored so flagrantly. A bureaucrat has to comply with the orders of the government, play a vital part in the formation of the policies of the government, and work for implementing them. On the other hand, the fundamental task of an academic is not only to teach but also to engage in research and push the boundaries of new knowledge. It is often the case that academic research in many disciplines, particularly but not limited to social sciences or humanities, is controversial or politically incorrect or anti-establishment. Thus, if this recommendation is followed, it would risk inhibiting academic freedom. No one would suggest that someone involved in criminal activities be recruited as an academic but in any case, a person convicted of a criminal activity would be ineligible to hold an academic position in any university, be it public or private.
Perhaps the only supposed justification for the suggested changes may be that the public universities are reliant on funding from the government and thus, the government's concerns and directives should be heeded by the university administration. As true as the financial reliance may be, such a monetary reliance does not justify interventions of this nature which would be incompatible with the ethos of the institution. And by analogy, many other public institutions which rely on the government for revenue (such as the courts) should then have to be guided by the directives of the government and none in their sane mind would advocate that. Thus, if the recommendations of the Ministry of Education are implemented, it would be an unwarranted development for public universities of Bangladesh.
The writer is an Associate Professor, School of Law, BRAC University.