The 2011 data-driven assessment of Dhaka University (DU) as to whether it can turn itself around by 2021 was met with silence except for the publication of “University of Dhaka: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking” in 2016. The editors hoped, “If a generation of people were involved in making the university and, sadly, another generation in unmaking it, then surely there is hope that yet another generation can engage themselves in remaking the university.”
Also in 2016, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) released its report on faulty faculty recruitment practices in public higher education institutions (HEIs) only to be dismissed outright by both the University Grants Commission and Association of Universities of Bangladesh. Those at the helm of the HEIs are either unwilling or unequipped to interpret data and take corrective actions. In the last 24 months, we have seen news headlines such as “57 DU Law Students Fined for Plagiarism” (The Daily Star, October 2016); “Stealing PhD Thesis, Dhaka University Suspends Teacher” (Daily Sun, December 2016); and “Plagiarism a Result of Shady Recruitment at Dhaka University” (Dhaka Tribune, October 2017). These headlines are in sharp contrast with what was envisioned in 1921 by Sir Hartog, DU's first VC.
Perhaps, it would do well to look at the hiring process of Professor SN Bose. He was a reader at DU in 1926 when professorship of physics became available. Bose had authored work with Albert Einstein which provided the foundation for what came to be known as Bose-Einstein statistics. He had also authored five other peer-reviewed works. He applied for this position but so did DM Bose. SN Bose's reference was Albert Einstein himself. The external reviewer for this appointment was Arnold Sommerfeld, the world's leading expert of atomic spectra. Based on his review of requirements, DU offered professorship to DM Bose. Only after DM Bose turned down the offer was it then offered to SN Bose. A lot has changed since then including the initiation of the DU Ordinance 1973. During the eight-year tenure of the immediate former vice chancellor, at least 78 of 907 recruited faculty members did not meet the minimum qualifications. Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury is noted to have surmised: “The university has become an educated people's slum” (Dhaka Tribune, October 2017).
DU Ordinance 1973 in effect replaced meritocracy with what turned out to be democracy of mediocrity. From then on, this Ordinance has been manipulated in hiring vice chancellors, deans, and heads— in some cases compromising quality vital to higher education and contributing to conflicts. The issuance of the Ordinance was followed by the assassination of seven students in 1974. By 2014, another 67 would be killed in political conflicts in DU and another 73 in other HEIs.
The standing of universities is determined by how they are ranked for its faculty prowess, as measured by both quality and quantity of knowledge generated by them. Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) global rankings take into account six metrics: academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty-student ratio, citations/faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. DU was ranked 365th by QS in 2005 and since then it's been declining. It was ranked between 550th and 600th in 2010, 601+ in 2012, 701+ in 2014, and now between 701st and 750th. Webometrics, on the other hand, ranks over 20,000 global HEIs in terms of impact of their web content. According to Webometrics, DU was ranked 3,627th in 2011 while BUET ranked 2,108th. And now, there are two institutions ahead of DU. Eight private universities are now in the top 20 HEIs from Bangladesh indicating that private HEIs are a force to be reckoned with.
Scimago Institutions Rankings (SIR) provides one of the most exhaustive measures of HEIs. In 2011, it ranked 3,042 entities. By 2017, SIR ranked 5,250. Although Bangladesh has 135+ universities, only eight met the minimum number of publications required (at least 100 in SCOPUS database during the last year) to be included in the SIR Report. SIR uses three indicators: research performance, innovation outputs and societal impact. The research performance in turn includes: number of articles, normalised impact (ratio of average impact compared to world average), leadership excellence, total number of authors, scientific leadership (number of corresponding authors from the institution), international collaboration, quality, and excellence.
During 2005-2009, 58 in India and eight in Pakistan were ahead of DU. In 2013-2017, 199 in India and 19 in Pakistan were ahead of Bangladeshi HEIs. A non-HEI—the Centre for Health and Population Research (CHPR)—not bound by the Ordinance, is amongst the top 38 percent of global institutions. In comparison, 60 in India and two in Pakistan are non-university entities. Organisations such as Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, Bangladesh Council of Science and Industrial Research, and others seem to have been afflicted with the very malaise that is harming DU and other HEIs.
One of the consequences of the 1973 Ordinance is an explosion of low-quality journals that are used to aid faculty promotions. DU happens to lead the pack. Publications in these journals, a large fraction of which is suspected to be plagiarised, give an impression that these authors are engaged in research. In 2011, DU produced six journals. By 2018, the number grew to 13. In 2011, Bangladesh Journals Online (Bangla JOL) included 73 journals of which only eight could make it amongst the top 18,854 global journals. Bangla JOL listing now includes 142.
The department once chaired by Bose has branched out into three divisions. Their 41-member faculty, in 2014-2015, published 12 citable works and nine non-citable works. This implies a yearly rate of 0.293 citable article per faculty, i.e. it takes 3.41 years for a faculty member to produce one citable article.
The quality of a journal and its articles is measured by the number of researchers who use them for research purposes. Each journal is measured in terms of both SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) and H-index (based on the set of the researcher's most cited papers and the number of citations that he/she has received in other publications). In 2018, 15 journals from Bangladesh were included in 28,606 global journals. Of these, only the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition (associated with CHPR) was within the top quartile of journals. India with 1,302,605 citable documents in 1996-2016 and H-index of 478 ranked 9th in the world. Pakistan with 109,760 citable documents and H-index of 197 ranked 46th while Bangladesh with 35,538 citable documents and H-index of 154 ranked 61st. Bangla JOL journals did not contribute much as far as impact is concerned.
The hiring process and retention of faculty members often guarantee the maintenance of political control over the institutions. Many of these journals are meant to help faculty members get promotions, even if it's by publishing work later found not to be original.
The credit for confronting plagiarism in Bangladesh goes to the International Conference on Computer and Information Technology (ICCIT), the longest running conference in Bangladesh. ICCIT typically attracts 369 submissions and has an acceptance rate of 37.49 percent. Beginning in 2003, ICCIT introduced manual plagiarism check and since 2006 has been using software to detect plagiarism. A few HEIs have been taking action against plagiarists. In recent years, we have seen some awareness about plagiarism among universities, and ethics education initiatives pushed by the Center for Ethics Education, a joint venture of Dhaka Ahsania Mission and North American Bangladeshi Islamic Community. These efforts can have a long-lasting impact in Bangladesh.
In support of “recovering, reimagining, and rebuilding” the HEIs, grassroots efforts have begun to take shape. To sustain their remaking trajectory, Bangladesh will need to deal head-on with DU Ordinance 1973, eliminate low quality in-house journals and appoint, retain, and promote talent on the basis of high-impact works.
Mohammad A Karim is Executive Vice Chancellor, Provost, and Chief Operating Officer of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, USA.