Perspectives from the UK: Improving research in universities in Bangladesh
In an article published by The Daily Star on 26 April, 2019, Professor Syed Saad Andaleeb shed light on the lack of attention given to research in many public and private universities in Bangladesh. He makes a compelling case for the need to strengthen university-based research, and the importance of building the capacity of what he calls "research university" sector in the country. Having visited Bangladesh and its universities many times during the past three decades, I wanted to join the discussion and offer my perspectives from the UK.
First, what positive (and negative) lessons can be drawn from the British context that could be helpful to debates in Bangladesh? In the UK, there is a strong university sector in terms of research, but people are wary of the term "research university". This is because of the idea that universities need to be good at both teaching and research, and that there are useful synergies between them. At my university, London School of Economics, for example, we try to promote an ethos of "research-led teaching", meaning that those who perform research also incorporate their study into their teaching lessons, to make the learning process more hands-on and exciting for students. It is also important to value both "pure" and "applied" types of research, because they often support each other. Funding is required to support a full range of research types, and we must also be careful of being too narrow in our definitions of what we deem "useful".
There is another key challenge around how to encourage, regulate and oversee the quality and relevance of university research. In the UK, we have a Research Evaluation Framework (REF) exercise organised by the government that takes place every five to six years. The REF is based on academic peer review, and results in a national ranking of each university department by subject area. And another important challenge in the UK is getting academics to engage policy makers with their research findings, and not just their research. For example, classics scholars can be encouraged to engage with museums, economists with relevant ministries, and so on.
The issue of research, teaching and university policy is regularly discussed in the context of higher education in the UK. A distinction tends to be made between the elite universities of the "Russell Group", which are expected to carry out high quality research alongside teaching, and the rest of the university sector, where some research may be undertaken—and in some cases this may be of very high quality—but where teaching is recognised as the primary activity. Currently, there are several questions being debated in the UK: Is there a problem that some universities prioritise their research over teaching, and is that a bad deal for paid students? How much of the research that is undertaken by universities has practical value, or how much of it is simply "academic" in the negative sense that it is locked up in the ivory tower? And what kinds of research should be publicly funded? (At present, the government prioritises the so-called STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] subjects over social sciences and humanities.)
So now, I want to address the second question: what are some of the possible ways forward for Bangladesh? Professor Andaleeb has highlighted the problem of not prioritising research, and I fully agree that it is important to change this. The potential benefits would be three-fold: (i) the possibility for university-based research to make a wider contribution to society (for example in medicine, industry, agriculture, social problem solving), (ii) improving the student experience, and (iii) the closer integration of university staff into global academic communities, practicing the concepts being studied and taught to students.
But I must say that there is already a lot of research taking place in Bangladesh's universities, and there are many academics already involved in international research networks. So, on the surface level, the solution is simply to expand all such valuable accommodations that exist today. However, in order to actually build a rigorous "research university" sector, Bangladesh needs to administer a thorough discussion, for which I am highlighting certain points that can be considered.
First and foremost, a few universities themselves will need to take the lead on this. It is important to first solve whether there exists a small, like-minded group of universities interested in research, who can start discussing this issue, set an example, and lobby relevant policy makers. In my view, this should be a mixture of public and private universities. Second, we need to consider whether the idea of "research-led teaching" is relevant to the situation in Bangladesh, and whether it could form a useful starting point for such discussions. Research can be used to enrich the teaching material, and if professors start performing rigorous research to complement the lessons, it can enliven the subject material for students. Third, if research is only important for promotion, as Professor Andaleeb has mentioned, how can incentives that are currently provided for research be sustained in the long run? Fourth, when it comes to research publications, how can we emphasise quality over quantity? Should a small number of high-quality articles (measured by the quality of the journals they are published in, or the reputability of book publishers, and citation metrics such as Scopus or Google scholar) be given more emphasis than a larger number of simply "average" publications? Finally, should universities consider adopting a dual system with faculty members involved in both research and teaching, and "teaching only" staff? The advantage for this system is that those academics who teach but do not wish to perform research can build a teaching career track, while those who want to combine both can assist a wider range of career choices and meet the needs of students with diverse interests.
And the last question to ask is whether there is support for a wider discussion of these issues in Bangladesh, in order to ensure Professor Andaleeb's recent opening up of this important topic gains the momentum it deserves and results in the positive change he hopes for.
David Lewis is a professor of social policy and development, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK.