A local newspaper published a report recently on University of Dhaka's (DU) Tk 869.56 crore budget for the current fiscal year, the largest ever, to support the work of the iconic institution poised to celebrate its 100th year since its establishment in 1921. Recognised in the past as "The Oxford of the East", people ask, what happened to that illustrious veneer?
A prime reason the lustre has vanished, among several others, is the quality and quantity of research originating from its hallowed halls. In fact, the budget allocated to research is shown as merely 1.09 percent or roughly Tk 9.5 crores for the entire university. The rest is allocated as follows: 30.71 percent for salary, 24.81 percent for allowances, 22.74 percent for supply and services, 14.38 percent for pensions, and a tiny amount for grants and capital grants. One might look at the miniscule allocation for research and ask: how or why would faculty pursue research?
Teachers are actually compensated for three major activities: teaching, research, and service. They are aided by an administration whose budget is covered as institutional support. The entire budget is, therefore, for "faculty activities" and "administrative support." The "faculty activity" budget is largely for teaching and research, which is why faculty are compensated.
If we look at MIT's (USA) operating expenditure budget (2019), it is shown under three major heads: sponsored research 47 percent; instruction and unsponsored research 32 percent, and general and administrative 21 percent. How then are salaries, allowances, and supply/services accounted for? Are the faculty not paid? The fact is that faculty compensation (salaries, etc.) is included in the operating expenditure as instruction and research (mainly) which accounts for 79 percent of the budget. Similarly, the University of Hong Kong's 2019 expenditures are listed under "two" heads: i) Teaching, Learning, and Research and ii) Institutional Support. The first head accounts for roughly 70 percent of the expenditures that covers faculty compensation and benefits.
For the DU budget, the faculty portion of compensation/allowances/supply/services is surely for research and teaching. Then why is there a separate category of 1.09 percent for research? Say (as an example only) that faculty are expected to allocate 50 percent of their time for research: shouldn't the research allocation be shown not as Tk 9 crores but actually 50 percent of the budget or roughly Tk 434 crores (minus administrative costs)? The rest is for teaching (and services).
The amount "actually" allocated for research at DU, therefore, is substantially higher than claimed. The 1.09 percent for research is a misrepresentation which would allow faculty to complain and give them an excuse not to produce good research—or any research at all. With the more realistic view of the research budget that I present, the question would then arise: "For last year's budget expenditures of Tk 810 crores, what proportion of compensation was for research? And what outcome was thus generated? What record or evidence would the university administration show?"
Another key point: If one takes a look at the revenue side of MIT's budget, tuition accounts for only 10 percent of the revenue stream. The lion's share of revenue comes from the Lincoln Lab (27 percent), research revenues (19 percent) and investment returns (likely from surplus money that research generates, 22 percent). MIT faculty members thus bring in, from research, roughly 68 percent of its total revenue of 3.932 billion dollars! Then there are endowments, grants, gifts, bequests, etc. In other words, faculty members bring in a good part of their own compensation through research grants and the like. Is this a model we can emulate?
I have also written elsewhere that "UCLA has averaged USD 1 billion in research funding with over 350 research labs, centres, and institutes…and over 1,800 inventions have come from this research powerhouse." If good research can be done by the DU faculty, under visionary leadership, that garners the confidence of the government, industry and international bodies, there should be no dearth of research funds!
DU's situation is context-bound and should not be equated with that of MIT and other vaunted universities. The compensation that faculty earn also require serious discussion. I bring the matter of research budgets to the forefront to generate a conversation on what is the purpose of our universities, what outcomes should be expected from our faculty members, especially in terms of research, and how can the budget guide the expected activities. Absence of a vision and a lack of desire to give prominence to research already shows dismal results (especially our rankings) that are not surprising.
I will concede that "if" research is not a priority, then DU (and other universities) ought to state clearly its priority and the activities for which the expenditure of Tk 869 crores is budgeted. This would establish accountability. Also, if teaching is the institution's priority, one might ask, why are so many DU graduates unemployed?
Universities build their reputations on research. When it makes impact and garners attention, not only do universities rise in stature, even the nation attains a stellar reputation. This is perhaps why many Asian universities have begun to focus on establishing a research pedigree. China, Japan, S Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia have already surged ahead. To build such a vibrant research culture, will Bangladesh follow?
With 38 public and 105 private universities in the higher education system, the question that must be posed is: What is the broad vision and expectation from these universities. To be in the ranks of the globally recognised universities, at least some of Bangladesh's universities must assume the role of flagship universities with a clear research agenda that drives their activities and outputs. Otherwise, they'll continue to churn out certificates for aspiring students who, at the end of their academic journey, will be destined, unfortunately, to join the ranks of the despondent and the unemployed.
Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University and former Vice Chancellor, BRAC University.