Recently the government took a significant step to transform the existing University Grants Commission (UGC) into an autonomous Higher Education Commission (HEC). This mostly went unnoticed by the print and electronic media. The Ministry of Education submitted a draft of the Higher Education Commission Law 2018 for approval to a joint committee of Secretaries which met on August 26 under the Chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary. Article 4(1) of the proposed law states that as soon as the law is passed UGC will cease to exist and HEC will come into existence. Articles 4 to 10 provide clear details of the organisational setup, the composition of HEC and the role of the HEC Secretariat.
The stated overall intention of creating the new HEC is to improve the quality and scope of higher education and make it internationally competitive through appropriate curriculum development, support for Science and Technology (S&T), encouragement of research, and using high level training to prepare and equip the next generation to successfully meet the challenges of globalisation and contribute to Bangladesh's socioeconomic development. Article 11 outlines some measures that would be adopted to accomplish those objectives.
It is no secret that the international ranking of Bangladeshi universities, carried out by different global and regional ranking agencies, is dismal with only one Bangladeshi university making it into the 1001-1103 bracket of the latest Times Higher Education Ranking of world universities. To improve the international ranking and teaching standards, Article 11 asks the HEC to bring about congruity with the curriculum of high-ranking international universities and develop collaborations with reputed foreign universities. While we can always learn from the best, the need of the hour is to devise need-based curricula that help to remove the disconnect between “skilled” manpower currently being produced and what is required in the workplace now and over the long-term.
How we perform against the indicators used by different ranking organisations could indicate why our university rankings are so low. In the Times Higher Education ranking system, Teaching, Research and Citations (research influence) each constitutes 30 percent of the ranking points, while International Outlook accounts for 7.5 percent and Industry Income for 2.5 percent. While the top universities in Bangladesh have an acceptable rating in terms of teaching environment, and international recognition is not too bad, the rating for research and research influence is very poor. Research capacity and productivity, and its relevance and impact together constitute about 65 percent of the ranking points. This very area is unfortunately the glaring weak point of Bangladeshi academia.
To address the need for strengthening postgraduate research and innovation in Bangladesh, a daylong roundtable meeting was held on April 22, 2017 at Dhaka University where practising scientists from academia, research organisations and industry had the opportunity to interact directly with senior policy makers including the minister of S&T, the VC and Deans of DU, and senior representatives of UGC, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC), Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), Department of Drug Administration (DGDA) and industries. Some of the recommendations emanating from that meeting are summarised here.
The first recommendation was to upgrade the UGC to HEC which would have two separate operational sections: A Tertiary Teaching and Training Section and a Postgraduate Research and Innovation Section. The Tertiary Teaching and Training Section would carry out many of the activities of the existing UGC and other enhanced teaching and training activities of the new HEC, with a mandate to produce competent and skilled manpower, such as well-trained teachers for all levels of education; science-related technology, health and agriculture professionals; and management and administrative personnel for the public and private sectors.
The Postgraduate Research and Innovation Section would support postgraduate and postdoctoral research initially in selected advanced postgraduate research centres within established universities; create a large pool of doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships to provide a critical mass of fulltime researchers within Bangladesh; establish a well-funded merit-based research grant scheme to support high quality research in academia; encourage the rich pool of Non-Resident Bangladeshi (NRB) academics and researchers to help develop and support research capacity in Bangladesh, and mentor young Bangladeshi researchers; and institute an incentive scheme to encourage research excellence and reward scientists for outstanding research productivity.
The participants at the roundtable strongly felt that in consideration of the limited human, financial and technological resources, research in Bangladesh should focus initially on areas of highest national priority but should be funded at international levels. Such an initiative would greatly benefit from a partnership between HEC and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), as the pooling of complementary human and technological resources would greatly enhance the quality and magnitude of priority research. It was recommended that the HEC, ideally in partnership with MOST, would establish a National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC) to coordinate, support and adequately fund research in areas of highest national priority.
It was recommended that the NRIC would have several responsibilities. Adequate funds for highest national priority research would be provided through a National Collaborative Research Program to multidisciplinary collaborations between academia and industry. A Platform for Contemporary and Cutting-Edge Technologies would be established as a National Core Facility to support world class research in Bangladesh. A one-stop national Technology Transfer Office would be set up to support partnerships with industry and provide advice on matters related to IP (patents), regulatory guidelines and commercial contracts. Finally, an International Scientific Advisory Committee, consisting of resident and NRB experts of international standing from different scientific disciplines, would be constituted to assess and monitor all research-related and funding activities of NRIC and the Postgraduate Research and Innovation Section of HEC.
Internationally competitive higher education, innovative research and technological proficiency do not come cheap, but are indispensable for Bangladesh to meet its SDG and socioeconomic goals. Excellence in higher education is not possible without a strong foundation in primary and secondary education, and to become internationally competitive it needs to be underpinned by contemporary S&T. These objectives require that the current allocation of less than 13 percent of the annual budget to education be increased to the recommended 20 percent, and the allocation and about 0.4 percent of GDP to Research and Development (R&D) be increased to two percent or higher. Industries should be encouraged, through tax breaks and financial incentives, to fund a portion of the national R&D.
The upgrading of the UGC to HEC will be meaningless unless the current allocation for higher education (about one percent of annual budget) is substantially increased (to at least five percent) and allocated directly to the HEC to fund its enhanced activities. Coordinated support from relevant ministries would be very helpful. It bodes well that the secretaries of the Ministries of Education and Finance, and a Member of the Planning Division have been included as Members of HEC. But if S&T is needed to power the research engine that drives socioeconomic development, then why is there no representation from the Ministry of Science and Technology?
The academic and scientific communities welcome the new development and are appreciative of the Education Ministry and UGC for their initiative. They would be grateful to the HEC, and relevant policymakers, if they gave serious consideration to the above recommendations regarding the HEC and postgraduate research and innovation.
Ahmed Abdullah Azad is a retired academic and scientist who has been championing biotechnology research capacity development in Bangladesh for a long time. He is the Secretary General of the Islamic-World Academy of Sciences (IAS).