The need for a clear research agenda
On June 2, 2022, speaking at the first convocation of Varendra University in Rajshahi, Education Minister Dipu Moni stated, "Universities both public and private should be turned into hubs of research for generating a knowledgeable and competent nation-building workforces." On June 5 this year, she took a bolder step by stating that the University Grants Commission (UGC) should allow PhD degrees in private universities, which are at the forefront of education and research, mentioning that there are some private universities that have this capability.
This is indeed a refreshing tone emanating from the education ministry, serving as the backbone of a nation boldly striding towards the upper-middle-income status. It is also expected to spur the growth of quality research in public universities, fuelled by competitive instincts. Exciting as the news is for private universities, a few selected ones at the beginning, the success of this venture with untold benefits will depend on a clear and bold research agenda.
Articulating a clear research agenda for private universities is essential for several strategic reasons: it goes beyond providing research funding and serves as a guiding framework, enabling the institutions to align research goals with broader national and global priorities.
A thoughtful research agenda is a strategic imperative that can contribute to the overall development and competitiveness of Bangladesh on the global stage. Formulating such an agenda will require intense collaboration between academia and the government, not a top-down approach. Such a model can be extended to industry-academy partnerships also. The agenda must be consistent with research capacity at the university level, weakened substantially by years of brain drain. To fill this gap, partnerships ought to be developed with the diaspora community.
Relevance to national development goals
A well-articulated agenda ensures that university research is closely aligned—as is in other countries (especially with resource limitations)—with the country's broader developmental objectives. Such alignment transforms the institutions as strategic partners in development, connects their research meaningfully to the evolving needs and challenges facing the nation, and enhances relevance of the institutions. The stark absence of such coordination today between universities and the government's priorities needs serious attention.
At the same time, such coordination would enable policymakers to assess the impact of the private universities on overarching national priorities. This would also ensure that research endeavours at the universities are not isolated and disjointed, but contribute meaningfully to the country's development trajectory.
Policy formulation and implementation
Policymakers, partnering with the universities, can benefit from a clear research agenda that drives evidence-based investigations for informed decision-making. In other words, the research findings must inform the policies and their adaptations should be grounded in empirical data, not on whimsical and crude assessments of reality or driven by arcane motives. Articulating research priorities can especially help establish important performance indicators, which can be monitored and evaluated to assess the impact of research on policy outcomes. This can also nurture the growth of a culture of evidence-based governance that is built up in stages to aid policy circles.
Strategic resource allocation
A recent news piece cited that UGC allocated Tk 150 crore for research out of the total budget of Tk 10,000 crore for public universities, which have over 15,000 teachers—a mere 1.5 percent of the total academic budget. This amounts to Tk 1 lakh per teacher, a paltry sum. The current practice at UGC is to allocate fixed amounts (Tk 2-5 lakh, according to a circular) to research studies, an antiquated practice which speaks volumes about how little the UGC understands research, especially that research cannot be constricted to tiny and fixed quotas, perhaps to ensure equity. Research objectives determine fund allocation, not the other way around!
Tiny grants also fail to promote significant research. By channelling resources efficiently into targeted research initiatives, the stated agenda must outline big blocks for funding (e.g. bridging the digital skills gap, agricultural innovations, mental health, human rights, alternative energy solutions), to be parsed later within the block. This would prevent wastage of research funds and foster a culture of accountability.
A stated research agenda will guide resource allocation decisions, in sufficient amounts, to advance meaningful and specific research priorities. Financial allocations aligned with national development goals will maximise the impact of research funding, as well as the investments and outcomes resulting from it.
A research agenda provides a roadmap for sustained efforts. Policymakers can plan for the long term, ensuring that successive administrations continue to build upon established research priorities, fostering institutional continuity. Effective succession planning, in turn, will prevent abrupt shifts in research priorities with changes in leadership, if any. Stable priorities are crucial for the long-term sustainability of both research initiatives and institutions.
A well-defined research agenda can also contribute to faculty development at the university level. Subsequently, vital human resources will result for the selected impact areas. Incentive programmes must also be designed to enhance the skills of the faculty/researchers in the chosen areas to ensure continuity of the research agenda when a pipeline of well-trained professionals are continuously developed. Clarity in research priorities will also help attract and retain talented researchers that will enable and motivate them to contribute to the priority areas. This step is also likely to mitigate the brain drain phenomenon and even contribute to brain gain if the research agenda can create a threshold level of excitement.
Global partnerships and recognition
A well-formulated research agenda can signal to the global academic community that the nation is actively addressing shared challenges while striving to contribute to the advancement of knowledge on a wider scale. It can positively position the country as a valuable partner for international collaborations. With innovative and inspiring contributions, it can uplift the country's global academic reputation that, in turn, can attract international researchers, partnerships, and collaborations. As a consequence, the research ecosystem will benefit substantially.
A thoughtful research agenda is a strategic imperative that can contribute to the overall development and competitiveness of Bangladesh on the global stage. Formulating such an agenda will require intense collaboration between academia and the government, not a top-down approach. Such a model can be extended to industry-academy partnerships also. The agenda must be consistent with research capacity at the university level, weakened substantially by years of brain drain. To fill this gap, partnerships ought to be developed with the diaspora community. The universities must also form alliances and consortia among themselves initially, with a critical mass of PhDs (with proven track records) to lead important research tracks. Research funding may be contemplated on a matching basis, with the private universities contributing a portion of the budget. All these activities must be coordinated by a single entity such as the National Research Council, suggested in the latest Strategic Plan for Higher Education.
The education minister has the right mindset aligned with the prime minister's vision of a Smart Bangladesh. Putting it together and making it a successful venture will require hard work by dedicated souls to enable the private universities to move towards centre stage in their nation-building aspirations.
Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is distinguished professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University in the US, former vice-chancellor of Brac University, and former faculty member of IBA, Dhaka University.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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