Academic programmes across the world are becoming increasingly innovative, competitive and challenging. They are responding to changing times. There is also the realisation that, built in the right spirit, universities can generate enormous social capital and rich economic dividends.
From new ways of “reaching” the hearts and minds of students to advancing research and innovative programmes, the battle for supremacy in knowledge generation, dissemination and use is now a hard reality. Government and civil society (with parents leading the charge) have also provided new impetus to the universities to be more conscious about enlightening students, empowering them and emancipating them so that they can craft their own lives and pursue their passions.
Considering the universities in Bangladesh, the current ethos is that many of them are unimaginative, lack in vision and vibrancy, and offer old (often very old) and boring programmes and curricula. Faculty and administrators seem to have lost their way on how to lead the universities into the future, thus failing to excite and activate the huge potential inherent in their students.
A few examples, provided by newly hired faculty at one university, will make the point. Asked to reflect on their own experiences as students, they often mentioned the notes of their professors that were prepared for their predecessors a generation ago! Absenteeism, unwillingness to answer questions, maintaining a threatening and taunting demeanour, lecturing rather than engaging minds, encouraging rote memorisation and so on have beleaguered students (and their parents) and squandered the opportunity to build the nation’s human capital.
With the rapid growth (in numbers) of universities, both public and private, there has been heavy involvement of people who do not come from academia. Businessmen own most of the private universities with a singular purpose and they recruit bureaucratic, military and political elites because of their purported administrative knowledge, discipline, and right connections. Yet, transformation of the universities has been slow, if at all.
With non-academics running the higher education institutions (HEIs), what students learn, how they learn and how they perform in the real world after graduation has seemingly been ignored. Of serious concern is the refrain from the corporate world, bhalo chhatro pai na (we don’t get good quality students). The achievements of our universities on the global stage is another indictment of their efficacy and effectiveness. The academics cannot be absolved from the lacklustre performance of the universities either: I have addressed their failings at length in prior writings (The Daily Star: January 16, 2016).
From where, then, will a new burst of ideas come to make Bangladesh’s universities become better as knowledge enterprises? While in a leadership position in a recognised university, I often picked the minds of “students” for new ideas. They experience and endure education every day and know a great deal about their teachers, evolving technology, exciting programmes elsewhere, and how the administration treats them. Yet, they are allowed little opportunity to weigh in on what is good for them despite the large sums of money they pay for their education.
How might the matter be approached by the leadership (VCs, Pro-VCs, Deans, Department Heads, etc.)? Each semester I invited a group of about 30 students to spend a couple of hours with me in a friendly exchange of ideas.
In an opening statement, I asked them to state the first thing that came to their mind when they thought about the university. They replied with descriptive words such as professional, crowded, provides quality education, boring classes, slow computers, etc. that provided many insights for appropriate intervention.
Next, the students were placed in groups to discuss and suggest two or three changes that they would like to see at the university. In one such session, the four top suggestions were: i) redesign the curriculum based on practical industry applications and remove overlapping courses that add little value; ii) change the scholarship criterion. Don’t just use CGPAs; iii) provide Wi-Fi, printers, paper and other IT facilities to facilitate our work; and iv) promote more business competitions and help us prepare to excel in creativity.
The third stage was the open forum where students individually continued to provide additional suggestions worth serious consideration. Here are some examples: i) provide creative assignments, beyond books, which include reasoning (critical thinking); ii) shift to bi-semesters as some course materials take time to learn (suggesting the half-baked learning going on at the universities); iii) establish separate research labs for each department (i.e., sharing of equipment may be efficient but not effective); iv) have teachers administer quick diagnostic tests at the beginning of each semester to assess the quality of students being taught and provide lessons accordingly; v) provide practical forums (e.g., moot courts with teachers having court experience); vi) provide research opportunities with a modicum of funding support (often students must bear the cost of doing research); vii) build international exchange programmes to visit neighbouring countries to strengthen knowledge, cooperation and understanding; viii) ensure access to global libraries for journals and other academic materials; ix) select administrative personnel who are competent and student-friendly; and x) engage parents in creative and reality-based counselling sessions.
It should be apparent that the suggestions offered by the students—a neglected stakeholder group—are not frivolous. They are very clear in their thinking and have a good sense of what will be beneficial for them. It is important, therefore, to institute mechanisms to listen to their voices to build responsive academic institutions in an era of great change. Students are the raison d’être: they must therefore have the right to express their views.
By opening this new channel of ideas, academia can gain substantial insights to attain the right fit or alignment. Listening to students’ voices that are reasonable, specific, balanced and sometimes challenging is also a new attitude that must be inculcated and promoted among academic leaders to imbue a spirit of continuous improvement.
Dr Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, a former Vice Chancellor (Bangladesh), and Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies. Email: email@example.com.