Return on research: Academia's new challenge | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:45 AM, April 04, 2019

Return on research: Academia's new challenge

Discussions about research in Bangladesh's higher education institutions (HEIs) have become animated and contentious in recent times. Being in a leadership position in a private university in Bangladesh, I can attest to the fact that discussions on this issue are pervasive—at the board and leadership team meetings, faculty venting sessions, hallway huddles, opinions on mass media, and social media rumblings.

In a recent meeting of exchange of ideas, a faculty member opined, “I believe that getting involved with [research] is essential to be an effective classroom teacher at the university level. Active research…increases the knowledge of a faculty member.”

A senior administrator also said, “A university teacher should pursue both [teaching and research]. Universities are established for creation and dissemination of knowledge. They must thus promote innovation and invention which cannot be achieved without research.”

The need to carry out research appears to be fairly well-recognised in academia. Yet, there also prevails a surprising undercurrent—gleaned from “confidential” discussions—about research being important only for promotions, where quantity matters more than quality. After the promotion is achieved, research is seen as useless. The refrain, “Of what use is it to do research?” is not uncommon in academic circles.

The fact remains that only a small proportion of academics are truly proficient and interested in research, despite many challenges. The rest are either miserable due to their publication ordeals (their supervisors simply did not train them well) or have no interest in research. This is reflected in a senior administrator's words: “The performance is far below the average on citations in Google Scholar…even for those departments that are above average, their numbers come from just a few individuals.”

How good is our research really? In a recent study on South Asia, it was found that social science research publications are doubling in quantity every six years. Overall, India published the lion's share (84 percent) compared to 6.4 percent by Pakistan and 3.2 percent by Bangladesh. The interesting fact is that the South Asia region published less than 1.6 percent of the global share in 18 years of research production between 1996 and 2013. Citation indexes (where scholars cite each other) suggest that South Asia remains far below the world average. If the work of researchers is not being cited or used, what is it really worth? The deeper question is: how can this state and calibre of research be changed so that the returns on research can be fully reaped?

While academics cannot be exonerated for the sad state of research in the country, the administrators, boardrooms, syndicates, regulatory bodies and policymakers must shoulder the burden in equal measure. They have simply not been able to provide a unified vision and clear direction on what is expected of the academia, especially on research.

The faculty are the worst sufferers due to a lack of clear guidelines on what would qualify as acceptable research. The acrimonious debate on quality and quantity also continues to ring hollow as annual increments and promotions are based on frivolous assessment criteria and “who knows whom.”

Top administrators have been quite inept at building a system to promote and reward good research. They include deans and department chairs who often bury their heads in a hole when it comes to evaluation of their own faculty. The divisive politics of what is good research and how it counts towards career advancement continues to rankle both academics and administrators.

Boardrooms and higher bodies across the universities want research but fail to understand what it really is and, therefore, how it ought to be nurtured. Consequently, our public universities have not done well in regional or global rankings. In the private universities, with their emphasis on revenue (i.e. high teaching load), research has been marginalised. Thus, only a few have a lowly standing in regional rankings.

Policies for research crafted by the University Grants Commission, the ministry, and their global partners are also obscure, deficient and lacking in vision. For years, they have mostly been tinkering with the national education budget which is hovering around two percent of GDP, and focusing mostly on recurrent expenditures in the public sector. Support for private universities has been relegated to the step-child status with the attendant neglect and ill-will.

In today's knowledge-driven world, we need educational leadership that must envision, energise and guide higher education, especially research, with a deep sense of purpose. The budget should then follow. If the budget comes first, the fate of higher education, or education in general, I'm afraid, is sealed.

Also, counting numbers will not do any longer. The HEIs must produce quality research. For this to happen, research must be prioritised in selected universities. They must then be provided support in full measure including recruiting quality research faculty (be it from institutions abroad or research partners), compensating them, training them, allocating budgets for the right research setup, and assessing the quality of research produced. 

In this regard, as convener of a special taskforce to address research in higher education, my group proposed two ideas: (i) establish a National Research Council “that will set the national research strategy, priorities, policies, and coordinate funding from different development partners and other sources.” More on the NRC is available in the Strategic Plan for Higher Education in Bangladesh: 2017-2030, and (ii) categorise the universities as research universities, teaching and research universities, and pure teaching universities. The flagship research universities will focus on postgraduate education, offering MPhil and PhD degrees, with dedicated attention to high-quality research. I don't believe these ideas have gained much traction at the highest policy levels.

It must be emphasised that commitment to research has grown steadily in strength in the region. Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong have already begun to compete for research supremacy. India wants to build several world-class universities. Similarly, the Malaysian government is encouraging its top universities to participate in QS World University Rankings. How academia in Bangladesh will shape up in a knowledge-driven world and forge the future remains to be seen.

The returns from world-class research institutions are not meagre. They can fuel state and national economic development. According to one report, “in 2012–2013, the University of North Carolina system…added $27.9 billion in income to the state economy. In FY 2012, the University of Hawaii generated $3.61 billion in local business sales, $1.10 billion in employee earnings, $194 million in state taxes, and over 28,500 jobs. UCLA has averaged $1 billion in research funding with over 350 research labs, centers, and institutes…and over 1,800 inventions have come from this research powerhouse.” The larger social returns are not fully monetised in these numbers. Indeed, the return on research can be incalculable.

As we marvel at the steady advancement of research in the Asian region and gape at the huge returns it generates in developed countries, it behooves us to think about the future of our HEIs in Bangladesh. This is a question that we must resolve ourselves. Others will not help us become knowledge powerhouses. It is simply not in their interest to see the emergence of another knowledge-driven nation pursuing boundless new opportunities. Indeed, the way to compete vigorously in a world of opportunity is to nurture and guide the nation's knowledge enterprises, especially the universities.

Research in universities can generate enormous social capital and rich economic dividends. It must, therefore, begin to receive serious attention and will require integrating intention, imagination, innovativeness, integrity, investment, and involvement of various stakeholders—the “6i ensemble”. When this happens, Bangladesh, too, can produce world-class research and transform society.

The question is: who will provide the vision? And when?

 

Professor Syed Saad Andaleeb, PhD, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, USA and Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies. This article was adapted from the author's recent editorial in the Journal of Bangladesh Studies (https://www.bdiusa.org/journal-bangladesh-studies).

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