Fostering a research culture in higher education | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 31, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:46 AM, July 31, 2020

Fostering a research culture in higher education

In an op-ed published on July 27, Prof Syed Saad Andaleeb reviewed the DU annual budget and argued that the dearth of funding should not be blamed for the lack of research. Since the responsibilities of a faculty member include both teaching and research, Prof Andaleeb suggested that the salary amount shown in the budget (30.71 percent of the total Tk 869.56 crore) should also be considered under research head. He cited examples from MIT and UCLA to point out how faculty members compensate for their own research by bringing in grants. The paltry payment of our public university teachers exposes the chink in the armour of such an argument.

However, Prof Andaleeb raised two very pertinent issues: What is the broad vision or expectation from our universities? Do we want our universities to remain certificate-churning, degree-giving academic institutions, or do we patronise some of our institutions to become flagship research centres?  

As the oldest university of the country, we expect Dhaka University to take up the role. However, sitting on the century's threshold, Dhaka University is gradually falling in research as is evident from its budgetary allocation. This year, it allocated Tk 40.91 crore for research, which is only 4.07 percent of the total budget. In the last academic session, the figure was 5.04 percent, and the year before, it was 6.66 percent. While funding is an issue, the negligence towards—or the absence of—a research culture in our academia is even more worrying.

By research culture, I mean the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of an academic community. In the academia, research is related to the career paths of the faculty. In universities in Bangladesh, research is mainly conducted and communicated keeping the objective of promotion in mind. In most cases, the outputs of research take the shape of a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, which is treated as a criterion for promotion. For each rung of the professional ladder, a faculty member is supposed to publish a certain number of publications. For instance, with a total of 15 publications and a higher degree, a faculty member can become a professor in 10 to 12 years if the wind is in her or his favour. Beyond that, any research or publication is voluntary, and there is hardly any incentive or reward. There is no evaluation for teaching, no annual performance appraisal either. The promotion of a faculty member largely depends on spending the required number of years in a position and getting the right amount of publications. If someone gets a high-impact publication in a web of science journal, she or he earns the same points as someone publishing locally. Even a shortage in the required number of publications or service length can easily be overlooked if the candidate carries the right party card. In other words, the reward system for research is far from fair. 

Research centres are also created either to promote certain individualistic or institutional agendas or to rope in a particular grant in which a select few will be benefitted. Within the same institution, there are overlapping units vying for the same target groups. For instance, at DU there is an Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies as well as the Department of Disaster Science and Management. The Institute of Business Administration and the Faculty of Commerce are offering similar degree programmes. The Institute of Modern Languages has started giving degrees in English as a Foreign Language, notwithstanding the fact there is a well-established English Department doing the same. These overlapping programmes suggest primarily a wastage of resources, and secondarily a shortage of collegial culture. The university has failed to create a support structure that promotes interdisciplinary research. Every faculty member lives in a silo, and is afraid that in a collaborative project her or his contribution will not be credited. In other words, we lack good practice in our academic institutions.

Often an influential faculty member breaks away from her or his host department, and starts a centre to insulate their research. These "selfish" ventures find administrative support because the administrative heads find it rewarding to count the number of centres, departments and institutes that have been created during their stints. The system values quantity above quality. 

There is hardly any accountability. Even though most of the bursary comes from the taxpayers, the public universities have failed to create a research culture where they link up with the government agencies and the industry. Because of the absence of this tripartite linkage, avoided in the name of institutional autonomy, we have failed to recognise the stakeholders of our public system. Only a national conversation can help us understand our research landscape.

As long as members of a university think that politics generates higher returns, we are not going to have researchers. Faculty members will simply invest in politics to hold on to offices in place of building their research resumes. Time has come to incentivise research, however. This should be done at the point of entry. Public universities still maintain the primitive hiring process where a faculty member is recruited based on her or his academic performance. In a system that lacks best practices, best candidates are often not chosen. Then again, not all good academics are programmed to be good researchers. Recruiting someone with a Master's degree with no teaching or research experience is one of the primal flaws of our system. Even in our neighbouring countries, degree-level college teachers (let alone those at universities) must have higher research degrees such as MPhil or PhD as their initial recruitment criteria.

Many of our colleagues struggle to write a research paper because they were never taught to do so in their academic years. They had traditional summative assessments in which they could get away with memorising answers right before the exams. The better ones soon become discouraged by the system, and find themselves lured by the research culture or academic ambience in developed countries. Imagine how many times we have heard the success stories of Bangladeshi researchers doing marvels in overseas universities! But somehow we do not have the system in place and the research culture in practice to accommodate these brains who had been drained. Even more sadly, there is no initiatives to connect with our brains abroad and create a brain circulation.

On top of that, the quest for research ranking is encouraging an unhealthy practice where our research objectives are being convoluted and dictated by the ranking agencies. Today, each local university must have a global strategy, and align itself with the sustainable development goals to tackle complex humanitarian issues in the areas of health, human rights, economy and the environment. If a university teacher thinks that her or his duty rests in giving lectures in a large classroom and checking bundles of scripts, then she or he will miss the big picture.

Research communities thrive through promoting a culture of public and societal engagement, through working with communities, educators, and policymakers both at home and abroad. Dhaka University can lead the way by boosting knowledge exchange through innovations and industry collaboration. To do that, there has to be a national level policy which can be adopted through a dialogue on research culture—otherwise, we will simply keep on barking up the wrong tree and wait for fruitful research by locating our mouth where the money is.


Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.


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