Let’s not be the fox without a tail
You must have heard of the story of a fox who accidentally lost his tail to a trap, and later decreed that all foxes must lose their tails too. The benefits, he claimed, were many: humans hunt foxes for their beautiful bushy tails; the tails can be cumbersome while escaping; and they can make noises while the foxes prey upon their targets. The cosmetic argument hides the fox's maimed reality. While failing to fit in with his tribe without his tail, he schemed to make others look like him. Now why am I thinking of a childhood story to start my Friday? Well, a piece of Taliban news reminded me of the story of this "tail-ban."
The vice-chancellor of Kabul University, Dr Muhammad Osman Baburi, has been terminated and then replaced by Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat, a Bachelor of Arts degree holder. Following the appointment of Ashraf Ghairat on Wednesday, around 70 teachers in the university resigned from their posts. Surely, they felt that the tailless beast would be after their tails. Earlier, the Taliban's Education Minister Sheikh Molvi Noorullah Munir announced that master's degrees and PhDs were no more valuable in Afghanistan. "Mullahs who have come to power don't have such degrees, and yet are greatest of all," the education minister argued.
In contrast, across the border in India, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has formulated a policy of not to recruit any university teacher without a PhD. The minimum recruitment criteria include doctoral degrees in relevant disciplines, passing the National Eligibility Test (NET), a month-long faculty induction, and a two-hour-long weekly commitment to students for counselling on extracurricular activities. The prescription of the UGC came in 2018 with a three-year lead time. Last week, the implementation of the proposal was stalled considering the Covid-19 situation. However, the higher education regulatory body is adamant on moving ahead with this initiative as it believes that a qualified teacher is the building block of quality education.
In order to attract better teachers, the Indian education ministry has revised its pay scale for teachers who would return from abroad. For candidates who have earned their degrees from any of the world's top 500 universities, the NET is waived. Also, the UGC has set assistant professor as the entry-level position, assuming that the candidates would spend their formative years of lectureship in doing research for their PhDs.
Now, how important is a PhD for an academic post? True, the mullahs have come to power in Afghanistan without having ornamental degrees to precede their names. They have the twists in their turbans to denote their prowess. Shall we follow such a regressive model that disallows academic pedigree?
Our quest for quality education will remain incomplete without an established culture of research. Unfortunately, we subscribe to a system that does not promote research and innovation. Students can earn their degree simply by attending some summative (mid-term and final) exams and submitting some assignments. Many disciplines do not even require students to write a terminal thesis, which means many teachers don't know how to supervise a research student. By extension, when some of these students join academia, they don't have the orientation to write a research paper or pursue a higher degree. Many of these faculty members take advantage of the systemic loopholes to get promotions. For instance, even working as a house tutor, distributing bulbs among the residents of a student dormitory, is considered for academic promotion in a public university. In such cases, what signals do we give to our junior faculty members when we appoint teachers without a PhD? We have had vice-chancellors, even UGC chairs, without PhD degrees. We can invite scores of foreign consultants to facelift Bangladeshi higher education, but in order to make real systemic change, we must begin with the basics: quality recruitments at the entry level.
A good education system demands the presence of a good teacher. And for a good teacher, a PhD degree is one of the most respected and well-recognised credentials. It is a badge of personal satisfaction for educators who know that they have achieved a professional goal through intensive research work in their chosen fields. They are capable of contributing to the knowledge economy. In our system, we have allowed fresh graduates with good academic results to join the university with a master's degree with the expectation that they would pursue a second master's degree (as many universities overseas don't acknowledge many of our master's degrees), leading to a PhD while in service. As a lecturer, I took advantage of such a system of study-leave and managed to secure scholarships for higher degrees. But many of my colleagues preferred not to pursue any further education, or some returned after doing a second master's or MPhil. They published the bare minimum of articles—often co-authored with others—in in-house journals to move up the promotion ladder. Some of them are great teachers, no doubt. Somehow, they rehearse what they have learned from their mentors or are comfortable teaching only in particular courses. But that does not make them great academics or researchers.
My octogenarian father-in-law still recalls the great life-changing contribution of his maths teacher at Barisal Zilla School in inspiring him to find a place in BUET in 1963. There are many such inspirational teachers without PhDs. But teaching at a university, where our students are our academic peers who force us to constantly learn and update as professional students, is a different ball game altogether. Having studied in three world-class universities in the US and the UK, I remember how small I felt with my university teacher badge, in a class taught by a lecturer with PhDs, who had their books published by the finest publishers. One should not be in academia without a PhD, I told myself.
With the pressure to upscale the national portfolio of higher education, the Bangladesh UGC has undertaken consultant-driven workshops to teach colleagues how to publish, how to prepare outcome-based curricula, how to find industry linkage, and so on. These are things that a PhD student learns alongside doing their research, while teaching a course assigned by their supervisor as a graduate teaching or research assistant.
The scope of transferable knowledge is trimmed by the UGC, which is paranoid of allowing private universities to offer PhD degrees. Many of the retired professors with stellar academic potential are now teaching at private universities. But the idea that these private institutions might "sell" certificates has restricted the regulatory watchdog from encouraging the habitus where PhD culture could have thrived. In its absence, we have developed this culture of homegrown good students getting first into university teaching, then into political grouping, and finally winning a professorship in the public system. This tale is as spectacular as the winding curves of a Taliban turban emitting an aura of power.
My own hybrid experience as an academic administrator in both public and private systems tells me: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." You can have endless workshops, but to make someone produce research work is a different story. However, if teachers enter the system with the basic academic and research orientation, they can inspire their students and get into serious research and innovations. A teacher's research credential should be taken into account in making a research supervisor, not the institutional affiliation. We don't want a bulb-giving professor to supervise research students just because he or she is in the public system. The public and the private systems have the same chancellor as their sire; one group should not be treated as the favourite one, while the other one as the foster child.
Let's rethink our policy of awarding doctoral degrees, and their value in the system. If needed, we can insist on joint supervision of a doctoral thesis from the public-private, local-international pool of supervisors to ensure transparency and quality of the degrees. Such a system will create a culture where PhD is encouraged and applied. Let's rethink PhD as a research generation scheme that will trickle down to all sectors, including the highest seat of learning. Let's rethink our university recruitment policy—or else, we will keep on chasing our own tail without any significant change.
Shamsad Mortuza is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).