The Dhaka University Alumni Association of New England (DUAANE) organised a seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA on February 24, 2019 to discuss and debate the low standing of Dhaka University in the global academic arena. The event was triggered by some concerns about the university’s low ranking in some recent surveys or “polls”. Two very well-respected rankings, the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings (WUS) and QS University Rankings (QS), have left out DU from its panel of the world’s top 300 universities.
At the seminar, attended by many former faculty members of DU, there was almost unanimous agreement that the quality of education at DU has been declining for some years. Several problems including lack of resources, the effect of political influence, and the role of private universities were identified. However, and most importantly, the panellists primarily turned their attention to the methodology used by the polling organisations. As an invited panellist, and a former faculty of the university, I was asked to share with the participants my thoughts on the low ranking and to offer some suggestions to improve the state of affairs. I will provide more details on this later.
By the end of the seminar, we had a good idea as to why WUS and QS ranked Dhaka University, my alma mater, so low. And the consensus was that one does not have to look very far to find the reason for the low ranking. The key finding is that the faculty of DU are lacking in their research publications in refereed journals. This is not to say that our professors and research staff are not engaged in writing books, journal papers, monographs, research papers, or survey reports. They are doing so, and probably in volumes every year. But they do not receive the attention of the rest of the world for an important reason. These papers, however well-written or well-documented, lie buried in obscure journals, and seldom see the light of day in refereed journals! As a result, they escape the attention of other researchers. And that is a shame!
It needs to be noted that the methodologies used by WUS and QS are very similar. There is general agreement in the global academic community that the reputation of a university depends on the quality of its students, faculty, and scholarship. Every university, whether in the US, Europe, China or Singapore, hires and promotes faculty on the basis of their teaching abilities as judged by their students, their research capabilities and contribution to their respective discipline and, above all, their publications in peer-reviewed and world-class professional journals.
At DU, faculty members have the guarantee of a lifetime job regardless of their performance once they are hired. In all other institutions in the WUS and QS list, faculty performance is evaluated each year, and promotion, known as tenure, is conditional upon satisfactory evaluation by their peers and students in three areas: teaching, research and service. In a predominantly teaching institution, the weight on research is less than that on teaching and service, while in research universities such as Harvard, Oxford, National University of Singapore and Tsinghua, the faculty members are expected to publish in top-notch journals and be cited by their peers.
Some of Bangladesh’s newspapers gave a lot of coverage to the latest round of rankings which has caused a lot of soul-searching and finger-pointing owing to the low rankings of Bangladeshi universities. One newspaper headlined: “Why were there no Bangladeshi universities among Asia’s top 417?” The VC of Dhaka University claimed that the ranking organisation made use of outdated information according to an interview with a local journalist. This view was shared by the VC of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology who added: “Bangladeshi university websites are too skeletal to present the current information about our institutions. Our teachers publish many research papers, but they are not updated in the websites. I am working to make sure my university improves them in the annual reports.”
However, both of these VCs miss an important point. It is not sufficient for the faculty of the universities of Bangladesh to engage in research and publish them in local journals! What’s important is that our researchers consider sending their articles and monographs to internationally renowned journals where they will be reviewed by other professionals before they can meet the criteria for acceptance. WUS and QS also consider a similar yardstick known as “number of citations” for each university. After an article or book is published, it must be cited by other researchers and recognised for its originality and the discovery.
So, what is the solution? Sometimes the way forward, as they say, is the way back. Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, an eminent educationist and professor emeritus at DU, takes stock of what needs to change to move forward. To quote him: “The research budget is very poor; the lack of quality research publications is not helping much. Classrooms see very little quality studying. Students are more concerned with their livelihood than learning. And sometimes, teachers are too busy teaching at private universities. They grow tired moving from one university to another. And many administrative heads are more concerned with politics than improving academic standards.”
At the DUAANE seminar, I was asked to offer three suggestions to enhance the ranking of DU. My recommendations, adopted by the gathering of distinguished DU alumni, were to institute a faculty tenure system based on merit, encourage student evaluation of courses, and ensure the independence of Dhaka University from political interference.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and taught for 13 years at the Economics Department of Dhaka University. He has published in several refereed journals including American Journal of Economics and Sociology and Western Economic Journal.