In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society about the responsibilities of a scholar and the role played by an institution of higher learning in shaping the mind. Education, he emphasised, should produce a higher state of mind and transform a scholar into the 'Man Thinking.' Published a year later as 'The American Scholar', the speech was seen as the 'declaration of America's intellectual independence' and was responsible for instituting a debate about how education could enhance both self-awareness and social responsibility. The Man Thinking, according to Emerson,would empower one's mind by imbibing the tradition of knowledge created by books and sensitising him to nature. And through his activism, the Man Thinking would finally emerge as an agent of change. A university, thus, is not merely a place where a student would spend a few years chasing a degree that would enable him to climb the job-market ladder, but is like a smithy that would mould him into a finer human being and make him ready to serve humanity.
The mention of Emerson, particularly his concept of Man Thinking, in the context of our higher education is particularly relevant because of the similarity between his idealism and the values that informed the initial thoughts about higher education in this country. When the University of Dhaka was set up in 1921 – a landmark event by itself – it was believed that the institution would bring about a change in paradigm in the way knowledge was disseminated and received in our society. When Rabindranath Tagore visited the university in 1925, he too appreciated its vision to produce 'complete scholars' – those who foster in them the qualities of a philosopher, scientist, social reformer and man of action combined. The idealism carried it through many difficult periods in the nation's history and inspired its teachers and students to stand for the rights of the people whenever the state attempted to usurp them. The university at one time prided itself for producing both Men Thinking and Men of Action but that pride began to wane when contentious party politics made an inroad among both faculty and students after the independence.
Today the University of Dhaka cannot claim that it is still driven by the mission to produce complete scholars, or that its graduates are imbued with the ideals that its founding fathers emphasised. It has grown to be one of the biggest universities in Asia in terms of its student population and the number of academic subjects offered, but it cannot find a place among the top 500 universities of the world in terms of quality. Clearly, some mismatch has taken place – a huge gap has opened up between quantity and quality. The same can be said about most other public and private universities of the country (a notable exception being Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology or BUET, which maintains a tight control on enrolment and academic programmes as well as teacher-student ratios across disciplines). The National University, which oversees the undergraduate and graduate programmes of a large number of affiliated colleges across the country, has a staggering student population of a million, making it the fifth largest university in the world in terms of student enrolment, but overall,the quality of education imparted is poor. As more and more students pass the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) Examination in the coming years – the number was 11,41,374 in 2014 – there will be a need to upgrade and increase facilities within existing universities or build new ones. It will be extremely difficult to ensure a corresponding enhancement in quality. Already, the country has 35 public universities and more than 70 private universities. More are awaiting the government's approval to open their doors. But the standard of education they offer remains, at best, average, and certainly not comparable to the standard of the best universities of Asia.
It will not be possible to ensure any change in the quality of our higher education, which would enable our universities to find a place among the best in Asia, unless we mobilise all our resources and expertise for a complete overhaul of the system. The task is daunting but certainly not impossible. To do that, we must begin by identifying the mismatch between quantity and quality and addressing the root causes that have stunted the ideal growth of our universities. Literature on higher education has long identified the problems which the policymakers at all levels are aware of. But the political will – total commitment from the highest level of political leadership to give education the highest priority – is still not forthcoming. Unless this commitment is in place, funding will continue to remain inadequate. And without the needed funding, the universities will struggle trying to scrap together whatever they can offer, which will invariably be far less than what the nation expects from its universities. Successive governments have defended insufficient budgetary allocations to education in terms of resource constraints. But poor allocations and a tremendous pressure on our universities to deliver the goods has resulted in a Catch-22 situation: poor funding leads to poor quality of education and poor quality in turn leads to the universities' inability to deliver the goods even when funds are increased.
To get out of this impasse, we have to put in combined efforts to bring about a shift in quality. We can do so by mobilising all the stakeholders in the sector; the government being the prime mover but the private sector no less – since it is one of the main beneficiaries of quality education (in terms of receiving a constant supply of employable graduates), students and teachers themselves, and the media. We also have to commit ourselves to a sustained and adequate funding to solve existing problems and address emerging ones. Unless the budgetary allocation to education is increased from the current 2.2 percent of our GDP to at least 6 percent (or 25 percentof the yearly budget) as is done by many Asian countries, we cannot achieve any meaningful change in quality. The other factor we have to keep in mind is that tertiary education cannot and should not be considered in isolation from the stages preceding it. Unless we have fully functioning primary, secondary and higher secondary education streams of a global standard, ensuring quality only in the tertiary stream would be an extremely difficult proposition.
Once we mobilise the national will and commit ourselves to a substantial increase in funding, we then need to revisit the problems that have long been swept under the carpet. We must begin with primary education, but we must also look into the problems of the other streams at the same time. The higher education sector will then be in a position to build on the expected gains in secondary and higher secondary sectors (in terms of increased language capital, for example, or better performance in maths and sciences) and chart its plan of action with more certainty.
What are the problems then, which we must address? Here is a list of the most pressing ones:
Faulty admission test systems that cannot guarantee a merit based selection
Weak infrastructure,and poorly equipped classrooms, libraries, laboratories, student dormitories and gymnasiums
Poor management resulting in wastage, misappropriation and scarcity
Political instability leading to university closures and loss of class hours
Rampant students politics responsible for violence and a culture of impunityon campus
Politicisation of public university faculty,party based elections of different university bodies and politically motivated faculty selection which have a negative impact on our higher education recruitment
Under-representation of women, which is most acute in administration
Large teacher-student ratios affecting the quality of education imparted
Inadequate ICT facilities and weak connectivity
An ill-thought semester system, replacing the yearly examination and assessment system in most universities which is proving to be a barrier to quality education in most disciplines
Syllabi and teaching materials in most university are not updated every year, resulting in certain stagnation in teaching and research
Poor supervisory and co-ordinating activities by the University Grants Commission (UGC). The failure of the Commission in checking illegal practices by many private universities shows how vulnerable it has become to political and interest-group pressures.
In most private universities, the problems are more acute. Many of these universities function as high-end coaching centres, with no regard to the aims of education. It appears that their goal is to produce nothing but Men Working in corporate jobs. An undue emphasis on saleability of their graduates turn the universities into conveyor-belt education factories without any thoughts on providing the cultural, sports and other facilities needed to create complete scholars.
The universities will have to think beyond the 'bubble' that higher education threatens to turn into. We have to ask ourselves sooner or later: 'How much of higher education is necessary' and 'from whom' and rethink our vision and priorities. Other questions will also follow – 'Does everybody need a master's degree?'; 'Aren't we making higher education a bubble which may soon burst?'; 'What about a renewed focus on technical and vocational education?'; 'How about making the Open University more operational and effective so that an engineer or a corporate executive can get a master's degree in philosophy at his leisure if he or she so desires? 'With virtual education becoming a possibility, how about increasing the range and scope of distance education and thus alleviating some pressure off campus-based universities? If we are to bring back the lost focus on quality, we must begin with a model of higher education delivery. A second challenge would be that of planning in advance for the growing youth population. If higher education delivery is diversified and made available online we might reach a substantial number of them. We must also place equal emphasis on the accepted forms of higher education as well as on vocational, technical and other forms of education. This will ensure the inclusion of even more of the youth.
Higher education clearly needs a great deal of rethinking, redesigning and readjusting. If the political will is there, and funding is adequate, the sector can see vast improvements within a short time. We must believe that the degrees that our universities provide are not merely for the purpose of entering the job market, but also for empowering the graduates to be Men of Action.
The writer is a Professor of English at the University of Dhaka, and a novelist, columnist and critic.