The question of status over academic excellence
After nine months of patient negotiations, discussions and representations, and after taking due care not to disrupt academic activities on campus, teachers of all public universities have finally gone on strike against recent moves to downgrade the professional prestige of senior professors through the new pay scale. Public sector school and college teachers, along with professionals, have also come out on the streets, but the most attention is focused on the status and ultimate employment ceiling of senior professors. Because their demand is just, and because of their collective clout, the government will have to agree to the demands of the university teachers sooner than later. But will restoring the order of precedence alone lead to a qualitative improvement of higher education?
Showing disrespect and indifference to teachers and professionals is certainly not the way to go about building a knowledge-based economy. Prestige and status of senior university teachers, and unnecessary comparison to civil and military bureaucrats, should never even have become an issue as university teachers are recruited from among the very best students in the country. They are, moreover, along with teachers at all levels of education, primarily responsible for nurturing and moulding the minds of the youth who go on to become leaders in different professions. The proposed increase in salaries is not any special favour being bestowed on teachers, as their emoluments are still far below those of their counterparts in neighbouring countries.
The case of other public sector teachers and professionals also deserve consideration. A 123 percent increase in salaries is certainly welcome, but status and societal recognition of their worth are also very important for all teachers, researchers, and health, agriculture and technology professionals. Those who live and work in non-metropolitan areas deserve special financial incentives to support decentralisation of services and benefits. A comprehensive solution is required for which one of the most important measures is the formation of a separate pay commission that not only looks after the interest of senior academics, but of all publicly funded teachers, and knowledge-related professionals in the country.
Students have strongly supported the cause of their mentors even though they have the most to lose in a protracted industrial action. It is, therefore, the duty of the teachers to look after the long term interests and legitimate demands of the student community. Even if their demands are met, university teachers should use their new-found unity and momentum to forge a broad-based coalition of teachers, professionals and students to formulate a roadmap for developing quality education at all levels that produces good citizens and a well trained workforce, and also build a need-based higher education system that caters specifically to the socio-economic development of the country.
The fact that not a single university in Bangladesh at the moment appears in the list of the best 400 universities in Asia (based primarily on research productivity and international recognition) would suggest that standards of higher education must have slipped. Senior figures in the education sector maintain that standards have not actually dropped but other countries have done better. The reason why other countries have outdone us is because they have invested heavily in postgraduate research and in science and technology. Low research output in laboratory sciences can be partially attributed to high equipment and operational costs, but what excuse do we have for scientific disciplines such as mathematics and theoretical physics, or for social sciences and humanities? Research publication does not necessarily appear to be a critical determinant for career progression for academics in Bangladesh, and there is not much encouragement or incentives for those who carry out research under very difficult circumstances. Bangladesh does not spend enough on education or R&D and the meagre resources are spread too thin because of a lack of focus on national priorities, and absence of coordination in their implementation.
The biggest investment that Bangladesh could make in its own future would be in building internationally competitive science-based education with emphasis on postgraduate research and innovation. These have been shown to be the biggest contributors to economic development in advanced countries and rapidly advancing countries of the developing world. Bangladesh could learn from the positive experiences of other developing countries. Malaysia has spent 20- 25 percent of its annual budget for the last two decades on education, and established five well-funded research universities. South Korea has achieved the status of an advanced economy by consistently spending around 8 percent of its annual GDP on education, and an additional 2-3 percent on R&D to preferentially support university-industry partnerships. India has established over 40 world-class postgraduate research centres (deemed universities), and Secretaries of all science-related ministries are on deputation from universities and research institutions. The Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, under the leadership of Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, has instituted two extraordinary measures. Academics and researchers can receive very attractive cash awards annually for measurable research productivity, and those exhibiting consistent and exceptional achievements are made HEC National Professors. It is possible for active researchers and HEC National Professors, irrespective of age or seniority, to have annual incomes higher than that of senior bureaucrats and government ministers. Many of the above initiatives are worth emulating in Bangladesh.
In developing countries that have made the most spectacular progress through education, research and innovation, the most significant determinants have been political will and enlightened leadership as demonstrated, among others, by Indira Gandhi in India, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Lee Kuan Yeu in Singapore. It is hoped that our Honourable Prime Minister, who has on numerous occasions demonstrated the courage of her convictions, will provide the strongest support to higher education and science and technology, so that intellectual capital becomes the primary weapon for achieving the development objectives of Vision 2021 and 2041.
The writer is a retired professor of medical biotechnology who devotes his time (pro bono) to research capacity development in Bangladesh and establishment of collaborative networks of scientists of Bangladeshi origin.