Our public universities are mostly engaged in building buildings. I mean concrete buildings! Even when a simple structure such as a bus stop is built in our universities, we see structures and designs with an abundance of rod and cement. If you try to remember some of the gates built in recent years in many of our public universities (run by taxpayer's money and yes that includes everyone!) you will get a sense of what I mean. More rod and cement means big-budget, happy contractors, happy everyone!
Lately, I've been saying this to many of my colleagues that our universities are all about how many student halls you have built in a year or in your tenure. And quite bizarrely, every year the diary/calendar published by our universities is always adorned with images of new structures of buildings or newly built memorials. I can't recall any humans in these diary/calendar publications. No images of teachers and students engaging in classroom activities or any other intellectual work, indoors or outdoors.
This is even true for the university websites where there is hardly any representation of students and their voices. If they feature at all, they usually feature in university's official programmes or events (there are the exceptions of course). But generally it's all about a few selected people involved in the ribbon cutting events and various celebrations on other days. Here too in the "dynamic" realms of our websites, monuments, and memorials rule. In the case of my alma mater (which is also my workplace for the last 18-plus years), the images of our campus's natural beauty (although I am not sure if this is the best way to be known to the world) sometimes make some inroads into the pages of our official diary. But generally, new buildings are always a priority. Who decides on these images? Surely the committees responsible for diary/calendar/website publication. But perhaps the more salient question is how did this tradition came into being? In whose imagination did it occurr that new buildings could be a thing that we need to show every time there is an opportunity with a new year?
For years together now, I've been vouching for a different kind of infrastructure. That is a university wide ICT infrastructure that may work as a backbone for many if not all the activities that we may want to do at our universities. These were simple things and nothing new. Our universities need to have a strong university-wide infrastructure, a customised Operating System if you will, which will allow students, teachers and staff to operate from their computers. We see this in many universities of the world. These are generally encrypted systems that provide online access points to many things starting from the library and its various online repositories to virtual classrooms to relevant course based portals to software supports frequently required by students, staff and teachers. Such systems are often designed in a way so that students and faculties can store and retrieve digital content of different topics useful for classroom teaching and students' learning activities. Such systems often can help teachers and staff to do away with a lot of paper work and work from home. The exam office that operates in some of our universities are simply outdated and requires new technological innovations.
This list of what could have been done with such online infrastructure can be long and I will not belabour on that here. What is lacking is any will within the university administration to bring in changes. Had we prioritised such infrastructure, a temporary recourse to online teaching would have been a possibility (the choice of online teaching by our education bosses, however, begs serious pedagogical question but that can be the topic for another discussion). In the absence of such infrastructure, and more importantly given the fact that our students do not have easy and equal access to the internet, now that they are all forced to stay put at their homes, this sudden talk of online-class (as if this is a magical solution to all our problems) sounds very hollow and meaningless. I am sure education bosses are worried. Like them, many of us are no less worried about our students. But you cannot suddenly change when our universities haven't done the homework.
To force something from the top will only produce some superficial effects and give the impression that everything is fine, much like the government's Covid response! But things are not fine in our universities and there are ample signs of that. Our universities are suffering due to an undesirable practice of teacher recruitment. This must go. We need to sort out the issue of student recruitment as well. How can we introduce an admission system that is less hassle for students and parents? We need to introduce a student-welfare centric union. These are some of the issues that we need to tackle immediately. It is high time some form of democratic mechanism is retained in the universities so that we hear a cross-section of students and teachers.
But the question remains, is there any political will for this?
Mahmudul H Sumon is professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University.