Research: Academia's Achilles Heel | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 13, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:32 AM, May 21, 2015

Research: Academia's Achilles Heel

ON a flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, I picked up a Malaysian newspaper. The title of an op-ed caught my attention:  “Driving research in higher education.” 

Laili Ismail, the writer, started out by saying, “Malaysian research universities (MRU) are boosting economic growth by being solution providers to society, industry and government….The purpose of establishing MRUs is to produce more PhDs to drive the industry and move towards a knowledge-based economy.”  

Ismail went on to claim that Malaysia now has 97,000 international students (a significant revenue earner) and that the MRUs have increased twofold the number of international PhD students. The faculty in collaboration with the PhD students produce solutions for individuals, the community, small and medium enterprises and NGOs. Based on models at Cambridge and MIT, the purpose of the MRUs is to help surrounding areas flourish and create jobs for the community by providing solid research support.

With education being a powerful path to development, higher education in Bangladesh requires serious thinking. Many changes have come to this arena to influence its ethos and character. The growing number of private universities is a case in point. The fundamentals of what constitutes a university, however, need a critical re-examination.  

Two serious weaknesses stand out immediately. One is in the prevailing teaching environment.  According to a fellow Vice Chancellor, “Bangladesh's tertiary teachers are completely deprived of professional development.  The notion of taking teaching as a career is [ill-conceived]. The workplaces of teachers are usually not supported by [the] required learning environments. [And] the culture of meaningful and productive interaction among the teachers for their learning and development are very much absent.”  

My focus here is on the other fundamental weakness: the quantity and quality of research produced by these institutions. A cursory examination of the research they produce suggests that much of it does not fall in the category of good scholarly work! To be considered as such, the faculty must produce solid research and publish in recognised outlets that will attest to their work.

Research, unfortunately, is the neglected child of the universities in Bangladesh. The fundamental role of research is knowledge creation, followed by its dissemination, use, and extension. Researchers around the world, in fact, have created a broad array of knowledge products which continue to impact humankind in multifaceted ways. 

Developed countries have long understood the role and value of research and a considerable amount of resources and effort have been employed by these countries to enhance research productivity and credibility. In developing countries, especially in Bangladesh, serious attempts to understand the role and impact of research have been sorely lacking. Knowledge production is thus feeble and its relevance and impact rather trivial.  A colleague overseas recently commented, “There is hardly any original research, at least in institutions I know. In Urbanisation Studies, for instance, people are simply relying on outdated data or continuing the trite topics that we have seen forever. There is good activism, but no good research.”

Kitamara encapsulates the problems surrounding research in higher education institutions. The problems he identified nearly a decade ago still persist. According to him,

“Many of the faculty members in Bangladeshi universities appear unmotivated to conduct their own academic research due to such problems as a lack of research funding, absence of a staff development program, heavy teaching load, and an unclear system of recruitment and promotion. At majority of the universities, many faculty members do not hold doctorates, and those who have finished their master's program are generally hired as new teaching staff.”

Among other critical observers, Rehman Sobhan points to the “lack of effective demand for research within the policymaking establishments [with] a strong demotivating influence on the social science research community.”  As a consequence, he suggests, “… the research agendas in the social sciences have been effectively re-colonized. The development agencies now largely determine the terms of reference of such research, the methodologies to be used, and quite often the outcomes to be attained.”

In an exploratory study of several higher education institutions, my colleagues and I found some extraordinary gaps in academia's research environment, especially among business schools in the private universities: they seemed to be all about teaching, teaching and more teaching. We found that 65 percent of the teachers taught more than four courses per semester, some up to six courses. Clearly the incentives in these universities are disastrously misplaced. It raises the burning question: When will the faculty have time to create knowledge? Lecturing from Power Point notes cobbled together from a variety of online sources that are not even shared with students does not a university make! 

When asked specifically about cumulative publications, the numbers told a very unflattering story. In national journals, that are often innocuous, 40 percent of the faculty had zero publications. In international journals, 50 percent of the faculty had none and 22 percent had only one publication.  

Given the growing size of the higher education industry and the resources poured into it by the government, some NGOs, a few private organizations, and a bulk of it by parents of aspiring students, the knowledge creation function of the private (and assuredly) the public universities is much below par. I must concede, however, that our findings need to be validated by additional research.  Until that is done, our findings will remain the benchmark.

I also wanted to share a part of my exchanges with a professor at the University of Cambridge (UK). At one point the professor wrote: “I am utterly convinced that teaching excellence at the university level is not possible to sustain for long without a research-active faculty involved in 'knowledge creation'.”  I hope academic leaders are taking note.

Research must become the mainstay and hallmark of at least “some” of our universities if they are to attain international recognition. The role of research is to generate contemporary knowledge and serve communities that often face tremendous adversities. Research is the instrument for harnessing knowledge, addressing the adversities, and transforming economies and nations. 

The role of research is indispensable for the advancement of any society, especially because things around us are constantly changing.  Research is thus about re-conceptualisation, re-imagination, and re-packaging of knowledge that best fits evolving contexts. Assuming a static world and delivering stagnant knowledge to our students will not only debilitate them, it will halt the progress of society and stunt its future in irreparable ways. 

A final thought for contemplation: In the community of nations, the question I raise is which ones are ahead and which ones lag behind? The difference is in which ones value knowledge, use them consistently, and produce new knowledge constantly, especially in their universities and knowledge centers. I rest my case.

The author is Vice Chancellor of BRAC University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University.

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