Do we need branches of foreign universities?
When the Tigers roared against the three lions, there was another surprise waiting for us on the cricket ground; a brand positioning of a foreign university. The emblem on the field declared that a second-tier university had opened its branch in Bangladesh. According to the university's website, it is ranked in the QS "most improved" category, which probably suggests its future potential. Its position among the top 10 Malaysian universities is no guarantee that it is a world-class one.
In recent years, Malaysia has become a preferred academic destination for many Bangladeshi students for several reasons. Their tuition fees are comparatively lower than in Anglophone countries. Many parents prefer sending their children to an Asian country because of its geographical proximity and cultural similarity. The local interest in the regional universities has probably teased them to extend their catchment area of overseas students. They have ventured to come to source countries to secure their business interests. According to a press report, another Chinese university is all set to launch its branch in Bangladesh.
Those who permitted these overseas educational institutions must have thought these universities would give the local universities a run for their money, forcing them to improve quality, at least in theory. I am trying to rationalise their decisions for my consumption. The logic, however, prompts me to a parental coaxing that my generation grew up with. There was always this cousin or dad's boss's child in the office who was better than us in every way. "You need to drink the water from his/her washed feet," our parents would occasionally poke.
Of course, competition is (un)healthy. After my hiatus at a private university, I have recently resumed my professorial post at the oldest public university. I can see how sincerely Dhaka University is trying to adapt to the demands of the time. They are focusing on in-house faculty and curricula development guided by the prescription of the University Grants Commission's (UGC) quality assurance framework. The outdated recording system and bureaucratic practices of public universities make them weak candidates in the ranking yardstick. In other words, it does not have the right system in place to present its activities. The universities do not have an automated resource management system to quantify their teaching-related services. Unless the research outputs are published in the portals of a selected few data management agencies, their fate becomes those of desert roses: they bloom without any audience to appreciate them.
Any patriotic policymaker will prioritise improving the health of local institutions by first trying to understand the nature of the ills affecting the system before bringing in a foreign remedy. The introduction of foreign universities follows the same principle of various premium cricket leagues, I believe. In the Indian Premier League (IPL) or Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), local players get the opportunity to rub shoulders with big players, watch them play from proximity, and pick up ideas from sharing the dressing rooms. The stock of local players improves with foreign players in the vicinity. No wonder, the Malaysian university announced itself on the cricket ground as it knows its target audience.
Having a university in a locality is considered to be a prestige symbol. And to boost the ego of some local leaders, we have allowed education to spread thin. Our insistence on quantity has made us compromise quality.
Unfortunately, education is not a cricket game where you put up a show for a spectacle. Education belongs to a tradition, and it creates a tradition. Each nation has its priorities. True, we are faced with international pressure to standardise our education system by following some measurable units. We have been told by UGC to make education relevant to our industry. The focus should be on creating employable graduates. Since the fourth industrial revolution is changing the face of the job market, the new graduates are expected to master the machines so that they do not become our masters. Traditional subject-specific education will fast become redundant, as our graduates today are expected to be multitaskers. It's not enough for doctors to be good surgeons, for instance; they need to know the law to protect themselves, IT skills to work remotely, counselling skills to make customers happy, and presentation skills for idea sharing.
Do you think a foreign university with a monetary interest will come to your country to make a significant contribution to your national interest? I doubt it. We need to figure out what we want from our education sector.
If the purpose is to stop our young ones from going abroad, by giving them an international degree while staying at home, before they could migrate abroad when they are a bit more mature, then the opening of study centres makes some sense. But if you reread my last sentence, then you will begin to see the embedded nonsense. These international outlets are likely to recruit local teachers and ask them to follow their prepared template while charging international tuition fees. There could be one or two visiting faculty members or some online components to validate the international label of education. If you think deeply, this is just one more way to launder money.
We have allowed our local universities to struggle to make room for these imported ones. Just like we allowed our goods to suffer in an open market system. We don't have manufacturers, but MBA graduates to sell someone else's products. Did we need to have 150-plus universities to cater to our students, out of which probably 20 universities are offering some semblance of education that is of any value? The question needs to be asked, why did we allow so many malnourished universities to grow in a resource-scarce country? Why did we allow the weaklings to thrive? The answer is often cosmetic.
Having a university in a locality is considered to be a prestige symbol. And to boost the ego of some local leaders, we have allowed education to spread thin. Our insistence on quantity has made us compromise quality. It is no wonder that the country does not have academic leaders to become vice-chancellors. Many institutions do not have the bare minimum number of faculty members or the full set of PC-PVC-Treasurer. And now foreign universities are coming as a saving grace (read, disgrace). If you want us to learn from the foreigners, bring in the best. Look at what Qatar has done with their academic city where they have brought in all the top schools of the world.
You must have noticed what happened to the last edition of BPL. We did not get good foreign players as there were too many matches happening simultaneously. Bangladesh is not a prize destination. We managed to attract unknown foreign players just for the sake of it.
Let's not turn our education into a similar commercial farce.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University.