What business and engineering students want from their universities
For the HSC students in Bangladesh, when it comes to choosing a field of study, business and engineering have generally been the top picks for a long time. To access the lucrative career opportunities that both fields offer, young students with starry eyes and dreams aplenty enrol themselves in these two fields in the university of their choosing. Needless to say, education in this country isn't cheap and these students have to pay for it with the hard-earned money of their parents, and sometimes from their own pockets. How have they benefited? Have these universities, entrusted with the responsibility of preparing the business tycoons and ground-breaking inventors of the next generation, been able to deliver?
The Academic Experience Project asked students in different universities exactly that question.
On average, business and engineering students remained neutral (on a seven-point scale) about whether their institutions were making them competitive for the job market. There was no hint of positive feelings or any expression of excitement in their responses! To the question of overall satisfaction with their institutions, business and engineering students seemed somewhat satisfied. What were the drivers of satisfaction for them?
Business students' satisfaction depended on the level of programme execution, the scope of the academic programme, the quality of faculty members, and on their sense of belonging and inclusiveness in their university. In simple terms, they prefer a programme that is executed well—a programme that focuses on experiential and peer-to-peer learning, problem solving, and is aligned with the demands of the job market. They want a programme that isn't too narrow in its focus, provides wider exposure to social and cultural issues, doesn't require rote memorisation to pass examinations, and is up to date with trends in the industry. They want their faculty members to be more helpful as students strive to learn. They want the faculty to stay updated and not teach from old notes, to make them enjoy their classes, and be an inspiring guru. They also want to feel like they're a part of their institution, a part of a community, where there is fellow-feeling and camaraderie among the students.
Unfortunately, the students rated all of these dimensions "average or lower than average" when reflecting on their academic experience. In today's rapidly changing world, these views are very relevant and ought to be taken seriously. As the world of employment becomes more dynamic and globally connected, where critical thinking and problem-solving skills are of high priority to employers, and where the workforce is expected to show intuitiveness, creativity, and leadership traits to further the goals of a company, business education does not seem to have adapted to or incorporated these needs, nor have they adopted and implemented modern teaching methods. Instead, their continued use of conventional methods of instruction, especially boring lectures supplemented with PowerPoints from which they just read, have simply been ineffective in building the human capital that employers sorely miss.
For engineering students, in addition to the sense of belonging to the institution and the level of programme execution, two other factors affected their satisfaction: faculty engagement and a sense of educational purpose. They contend that many faculty members seem distant or disengaged from their students. And they ask what the faculty are doing with their time that they can otherwise account for. The engineering students also rated each driver of satisfaction "lower than average" when they rated their university experience.
The above factors contain some of the most important criteria for delivering engineering education which has consistently been rated as one of the most desirable areas of study in our country. From intricate theories to puzzling equations, students have to really put in hard work to understand the nuances and theoretical twists. What they sorely miss is how to apply what they learn.
The knowledge that engineering students can learn, process, retain, and use depends on the teachers and how efficiently and effectively they make these subjects understandable, relevant, interesting, and engaging. Faculty engagement can also instil a sense of purpose among engineering students (e.g. how challenges were met during the construction of the Padma Bridge and how to become innovative structural engineers). When the faculty fail to imbue students with such a sense of purpose, the students become more interested in getting the certificate rather than truly learning and comprehending what their subject is really about. This is also resulting in students losing interest and opting to switch career tracks by pursuing an MBA degree or sitting for the BCS examination, instead of becoming a low-grade and ineffective engineer in their respective fields.
Our findings corroborate what has been echoed in conversations and public forums for a long time, and leads to one conclusion: The education system needs a major overhaul to provide instruction that is holistic, relevant, and aligned with the next phase—JOBS! It needs to address not only the needs of the students who want to learn with passion and zeal; it also needs to understand the modern workplace in a rapidly evolving 4IR environment that demands certain traits and characteristics in their workforce, as well as exacting skills—i.e. both soft (human) and hard (technical) skills—that our conventional academic institutions have apparently ignored.
Our youth are the changemakers, the future, of Bangladesh, a nation aspiring to attain middle-income status in the coming years. They are the demographic dividend we need to harness quickly and resolutely, to take advantage of the receding window of opportunity before it closes. Education is the yardstick that will measure their ability to take the country forward. The least our academic institutions can do is to play their part by remaking themselves and taking the necessary steps to prepare the nation's youth (not just business and engineering graduates) for tomorrow. Can academia rise to the challenge? Can academics restore their pride of leading change and guiding the nation into a tumultuous future?
Arnab Rahman is working on his MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Visiting Professor at IBA, University of Dhaka, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.