How relevant are academic programmes in universities?
The unemployment rate among university graduates in Bangladesh has risen sharply. A study conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue indicated that about 46 percent of the total unemployed youth are university graduates. While arguments suggest that judging universities by the kind of jobs the graduates land might lead to an instrumentalist and degraded form of education (Ansell, 2016), one cannot ignore the fact that most students expect their education to prepare them for the workplace.
Responding to a survey on their academic experience with higher education, one student commented, "We [come to] study as we need a certificate to live in society. In Bangladesh, there are very few job sectors which are related to the subjects we study. As a result, for jobs, we need to prepare ourselves separately."
Another student emphatically wrote: "I think academic study alone is not enough for a job; there is a need to [go beyond] what academia teaches."
It is essential for our universities to understand the changing needs of the modern world and adapt to it to ensure that education is not far removed from reality and relevance; its ties to employability are also imperative.
When asked about employability, unsurprisingly, a large majority of the students felt that their institutions "did not" make them competitive for the job market. While several factors accounted for their dissatisfaction, we report the findings concerning one factor—relevance—which refers to the extent to which learning outcomes in higher educational institutions are fit for the current times. The concept of "relevance" is reflected by 1) whether course contents are up-to-date, 2) whether faculty members are up-to-date, 3) whether students are learning things that build their careers, and 4) whether the academic programme is broad in its focus.
Relevance as a concept was found to have a moderately strong and significant association with student satisfaction, suggesting that it is highly valued by them in a competitive job market.
How are the universities in Bangladesh rated on the relevance factor?
On a 7-point scale, the overall average score was 3.28. It is clearly an area of dissatisfaction for a majority of the students. In fact, 71 percent of the students gave "relevance of their programme" a rating of 4 or less (where 4 is considered to be a neutral point). The sheer lack of contemporary education and learning opportunities in our universities, as perceived by the students, is astonishing and raises the question of how students will fare as job holders in the modern world. Bangladesh aspires to become an upper-middle-income country. How is that possible when our academic institutions are not producing human assets armed with relevant knowledge?
On the individual features characterising relevance, substantial deficiencies are noteworthy: breadth of the educational programmes earned a mere score of 2.98; up-to-date course contents earned a score of 3.16; career-conducive learning was rated 3.23, and teachers being up-to-date scored 3.76.
Some important comparisons
Private universities scored 3.70 on relevance while public universities scored 3.19. Both public and private university students assert that they are "not okay" with the lack of contemporary education they are receiving. Interestingly, the difference between the mean scores was statistically significant, suggesting that public university students are much more dissatisfied with relevance than private university students.
Another comparison was between undergraduate and postgraduate students: postgrads rated relevance of their education 3.64 points; for undergrad students, the score was 3.14, a significantly lower score than postgrad-level students' scores.
The mean ratings on relevance for business students and science/engineering students are 3.15 and 3.41; this difference was not statistically significant. Nevertheless, it goes to show that students from both of these areas feel their institutions "do not" provide a contemporary learning experience. A low score of 3.15 for business-related programmes is also alarming as business subjects are usually perceived to be up-to-date and focused on career-oriented learning. This finding is worrying as business students will be at a disadvantage with their global contemporaries in a fast-changing business environment.
The data reveal that students in Bangladesh's higher educational institutions may be seriously deficient in terms of understanding the demands of the modern world. Corroboration of this finding is offered by business entities who have gone out of the country to recruit, at significantly higher costs, because they found the locals seriously underprepared.
Fatema Tasmia, an educator at BUET, opined: "Higher education needs to have that blend of theory and practice. While pursuing employability prospects and preparing students for their professional life, it is important not to forget that universities are also about cultivating minds. We need to strike that balance."
There has been constant criticism regarding the quality of education our universities provide. A corroborating example is a recent article that bemoans in its title "Dhaka University: Growing in size, shrinking in standard."
Bangladesh is spawning universities, but are they making a mark? Students complain that many programmes in higher education thrive on the same outdated curriculum of yesteryears and add no major value. It is of utmost importance—now that universities in Bangladesh are re-designing their courses under the influence of Covid-19—to broaden their focus and include up-to-date course content to ensure that the programmes are aligned with the changing needs of the modern world.
Our graduates have already fallen behind not only in the global market place for employment but also in Bangladesh where corporate bodies are employing staff from other countries, especially at decision-making levels. It is time to focus on the contemporary world and design academia's programmes accordingly to enable and empower the next generation.
Fahmun Nabi is working on his MBA degree at IBA, Dhaka University. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, and former Vice Chancellor, BRAC University. The article is a result of his collaboration with IBA students to turn the spotlight on higher education in Bangladesh. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.