There is no doubt that Bangladesh suffers from the trap of low learning, and a key element of this is the lack of qualified teachers. This vicious cycle can only be broken by bold and innovative policy intervention, with particular focus on teaching and research. Here, I would like to argue that it is not possible to change the ground reality of political control over our education system. What is essential to radically transform it is to build a second incentive structure that values knowledge generation for those who would follow the path of research, teaching and publications or take up initiatives to update curriculum and build a closer partnership between university and industry.
This new policy would require huge research funds, building of an international standard library, maximum use of our teaching potential, horizontal partnerships among different national agencies, effective coordination, local-global partnerships and the extensive use of digital technology. It is important to build a broad partnership among four key stakeholders—the Ministry of Education, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the National University and the University of Dhaka (DU). It can only be ensured by the Prime Minister’s Office through an adviser who has high academic excellence. After that, the most important task is to conduct a nationwide search for potential teachers who remain unutilised or underutilised. One source is a pool of retired professors (in USA, professors can continue for as long as they can teach) or members of the civil service, many of whom are able to do high quality research or teaching. A simple criterion of Google Scholar citations, or publications in its absence, should be adopted for selecting academics to undertake higher level teaching or research. However, one should remember that the US automotive and energy company Tesla does not even demand a diploma as a job requirement.
The diaspora scholars who have returned to Bangladesh constitute the second source. Here lies the key role of the UGC in maintaining a register of scholars and actively searching for those who are conducting research or publishing academic works along with their Google Scholar citations. A third source can be Bangladeshi scholars living abroad or renowned foreign scholars who will provide distance learning or may be brought to Bangladeshi universities through suitable pay. The UGC should encourage new and regional universities to hire retired professors on a contractual basis to teach at the Masters level if they do not have professors. The National University should also allow colleges to hire serving or retired university professors to teach at the Masters level; students may be charged if the universities or colleges do not have adequate funds.
The most vital aspect of this policy is to develop postgraduate education facilities at three levels at the University of Dhaka—a full-time postgraduate diploma, and M.Phil. and PhD programmes for college teachers, in particular. It should be a collaborative programme jointly conducted with the University of Dhaka and foreign universities of high reputation. The external experts could supervise through Skype or other digital platforms from abroad and should be suitably remunerated for it. The PhD students should be allowed to stay one or more semesters at foreign universities for course work or library work. This will be more cost effective and useful than wasting money on training college teachers abroad, which may serve little purpose in the end. Besides, it is equally important that college teachers should be promoted not on the basis of seniority but on their academic competence. The government should change the rules of promotion for college teachers so that there is incentive to pursue higher degrees and research at the college level.
The long term vision should embrace establishing different schools of advanced research like the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) or the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) within the next ten years at DU and gradually at other universities. All these, of course, raise the question of finance. We need to build up partnerships with donors, the government of Bangladesh and the private sector. The current World Bank projects can be reshaped to suit our national policy more. It would be in the interest of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) if we have a top quality business school geared to the needs of the garments industry so that we don’t have to hire senior administrative staff from abroad, or for our growing pharmaceutical industries to build a school of pharmacy for developing new or cheaper drugs. The fund for schools of liberal arts and social sciences may come from the tuition fees (at market rate) from M.Phil. and PhD students, or can be paid out as scholarships to college teachers by the National University, which has huge financial resources. Research students should be allowed to borrow money from banks without interest for higher education as well, and the interest should be paid from the bank’s CSR fund. Additional funds can be raised from a small levy on luxury cars, foreign travels etc. Most vitally, this fund is also necessary to build a proper library, support academic research and establish an advanced school of artificial intelligence and robotics in partnership with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and the best universities of India, China and South Korea. The University of Peking, which is 24th in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking of 2020, has proven that world class universities can be built in decades. It will not be difficult to transform the University of Dhaka into a leading university of Asia in a couple of decades. The adoption of a new paradigm of higher education for the country would be the most befitting way to celebrate the Centenary of the University of Dhaka. The Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also an alumnus of DU, has an innovative vision of and an interest in higher education. The Centenary and the 50 Year Anniversary of the Independence of Bangladesh offers her a unique occasion to launch a new strategy of higher education to reshape the destiny of the nation.
S Aminul Islam is Honorary Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka.