Higher education and a riveting rumination
Again loomed the political bedlams and remained education in the gloom and doldrums. Again I was lost in the labyrinth where an aura of quandary befell me. I recalled what I said in my write-up on “Imparting Substance to Education”, published in the 23rd Anniversary Supplement of the Daily Star in 2014. This was, “But harking back I saw a beautiful Bangladesh always reviving in emerging trends, which had given me the scope to think of hope, germane to making a start.”
So, I put pen to paper keeping in mind the same hopeful demeanour, and taking into cognition the need of higher education overarching a nation that strives to make strides ahead.
Indeed, higher education has greatly expanded in the last few decades not only because of the graduates' own interest but also due to the contributions graduates make encompassing the well-being of a country as a whole.
The World Bank Task Force Report on “Improvement of Higher Education and Society”, published in 2001 said, “An educated and skilled stratum is indispensable to the social and economic development of a modern society, giving benefits to the society as a whole not merely to those being educated.”
Let me mention here that the United Nations Brundtland Commission in the report “Our Common Future,” published in 1987, defined sustainable development as development that meets “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development, therefore, subsumes the concepts of needs, limitations and changes, as well as the aspects of future orientation.
It also behoves me to mention here about the 2014 UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) which opened in Nagoya, Japan on November 10 to reflect the achievements on the UN Decade for ESD (2005- 2014), and outline the way forward with a new Global Action Program (GAP). UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova described the conference as a call to nations and said, “Building the foundations for lasting peace must start in the minds of women and men. And this must begin with education.” She further said that education is the way to connect the dots between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince of Japan, echoed the same sentiment and emphasised on merging education with sustainable development agendas for advancing changes that the world needs today.
The World Conference on ESD in Japan closed on November 12, 2014 with a call for urgent actions to make ESD mainstream and include it in the post-2015 Global Action Program (GAP).
While the role of universities in the making and delivery of knowledge for sustainable development is still entangled by the debate on whether higher education should be viewed as a 'public good' or whether a 'user should pay' for the cost of education, the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education viewed that the 21st century university is likely to be a hybrid of public and private enterprise. “In 20 years' time there will be no debate about public or private education as new structures that find a balance between the two are developed,” said UNESCO Director of Higher Education, George Haddad. In tune with this, Times Higher Education (THE) in a report in 2014 argued that the rapid growth of private institutions be viewed as a good thing for higher education. The report's recommendations include the implementation of an “equitable playing field” between all providers (Public and Private) via primary legislation to establish “a revised and single comprehensive system of regulation and administration that embraces all HE (Higher Education) providers.”
The 2014 report published by Times Higher Education (THE) also said that in UK “Public-backed funding for students of private providers has grown from 30 million pounds in 2010 to a projected 900 million pounds in 2014-15”. This tells of the emphasis given to private providers for boosting quality in education.
Unfortunately, there is no such provisionin Bangladesh. There exists, therefore, a distinct gap between the public and private universities in Bangladesh.
Responding to the call of the society
In this new era we have shifted from the conventional outlook to a new pragmatic disposition of looking at the responsibilities of the universities. Today, universities are responsible for not only educating and training young minds during the tenure of their stay in the university, but also making sure that this education and training truly contribute to the welfare of the society and the national development processes.
While talking of development, bias often tends to move towards economic growth that improves the social well-being of the people, universities also need to improve in terms of cultural, spiritual and intellectual developments of the individual. There is no doubt that universities must advance knowledge and take drives to reach mankind in great tangible fashions.
Instead of dwelling within the niches of academic freedom or being left alone in such niches that they have created for themselves overtime, the academics and the academia must respond to the call of society and that of the nation. A failure to do so will not only affect the societal desiderata but also stifle the growth of the university itself.
Let me showcase here what the First Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dhaka, Sir P.J. Hartog envisioned more than ninety years ago, when in the second convocation of the university he said, “A man may be an excellent teacher of elementary subjects without the power to add to knowledge. But in advanced work I maintain that no one can really teach well unless he has the combination of imagination with critical power which leads to the original production (of knowledge), and for that if for no other reasons, a university to be a true university must see that its teachers are men who are also capable of advancing knowledge.”
While universities must function in tandem with the needs of the society, there must remain camaraderie so that the expectations flow both ways.
We also need to bring together people, knowledge and ideas to identify potential opportunities and glean benefits from such opportunities.
While basic research is an impending necessity that allows the highest intellects to work on fundamental problems of one's choice, research activities must also aim at the needs of industries, the technologies, and the society. The universities, therefore, need to act in collaboration with such stakeholders. Research being very expensive, its selectivity is also very important everywhere in the world. It should not only serve the national interest but also have global focus. It is important to ensure that research funding follows high quality research. For example, Higher Education in the UK, as in many parts of the world, is required to account for its research activity based on quality, output and the full economic cost of such research activity. Government funding for research in the UK follows National Research Council Assessment Exercise done periodically.
In New Zealand the government introduced, in 2003, the “Performance Based Research Fund,” a system which rewards universities for research excellence. This system is based on the British Research Assessment Exercise, but uses individual academic, rather than the department, as the unit of assessment.
It is encouraging to note that the University Grants Commission in Bangladesh has come forward to provide Quality Assurance fund for improving the quality attributes of the universities, in both public and private sectors. But special allocation for research is yet to come, especially for the private universities in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, private education providers in Bangladesh do not have the bent of mind for providing even a minimum fund for research. Private Universities in Bangladesh are, therefore, lagging behind seriously in research activities. This is the main reason why the private universities in Bangladesh are failing to maintain the general character of a university of international standard.
Need of synergic engagements
Research and human resource development endeavours of the universities while working in line with sustainable development, need to enter into synergic engagements with all stakeholders in the society, keeping both the national and international needs in mind. Inter-university partnerships are equally important. At the Conference of the Executive Heads of the Association of Commonwealth Universities held in Adelaide in 2006, which I attended as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dhaka, R. Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India said, “If a country wants rapid national development, it must introduce coherent synergy in its science and technology efforts, it must have technology foresight to make the right technology choices at any point of time in a national perspective and it must have a robust innovation system.” He added, “In all these, I see new roles for the universities.”
Understanding the needs and demands can no doubt uncover collaboration opportunities. The universities, therefore, need to think about the needs of the components they are working with.
The drive for expanding higher education in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, the number of students involved in higher education in the eligible group of population is significantly less compared to the developed world. The required enhancement in the access rate will incur a great amount of money. At the same time, it is a policy concern for the governments to decide how the existing universities, built over time with tremendous investment of material resources, will be appropriately supported to enable them to cope with the 21st century's economic order.
The government must not let them decline for dearth of fund. At the same time, with obligations in many more sectors and limited resources in the exchequer, the creation of the required number of new universities in the public sector is a difficult proposition today. Therefore, at present the drive for expanding higher education in Bangladesh comes from the private sectors in great strengths. But, since, education in the private sector has become quite expensive, the private providers tend to cater expensively to an elite market. Reaching the talented but financially weaker group of students, who comprise the bulk of education seekers in Bangladesh, is a great challenge indeed. I believe the government together with private providers may take manifold approaches to address the situation. Firstly, there may be public-backed funding for students in the private sector, like that in the UK, as mentioned earlier. Secondly, the government may provide land and other amenities to private universities at a highly lowered and comfortable rate, like that in India and China. The above two options can only take effect if the private providers take affordable fees from the students. In return, a government policy that envisions the equity and access to higher education becomes easier to achieve. At the same time, the government may feel more comfortable to exert its authority so that the private providers work in compliance with rules and regulations along with ensuring quality education. The third approach must come from the private providers themselves. They must play exemplary roles, keeping in mind their social and moral obligations towards the society. The dilemma of for-profit private education providers need to settle down and should be in favour of the social and moral obligations than the profit motivation. Indeed, an educated society brings good for all.
Quality assurance not caveat emptor
In a country like Bangladesh, the government has a great role to play in protecting the citizen-consumers of higher education. In recent times, the liberal think-tank CentreForum based in Westminster, London has called for legislations to establish a single regulatory framework for the whole of higher education i.e. both for publicly funded and private universities.
Quality assurance processes, although different in approaches, are practiced throughout the world. In the USA, external quality monitoring is done by regional, national and specialised agencies, which in turn are accredited by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and also by the United States Department of Education (USDE). Australia also follows the External Quality Monitoring (EQM) process. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for higher education in the UK which is an independent body is entrusted with monitoring, and advising on standards and quality of higher education. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) which is funded by the University Grants Commission of the Government of India assesses and accredits institutions of higher education in a manner similar to QAA in UK, though the details of the criteria are different, and the stages of accreditation has similarity with the USA.
It is highly encouraging to note that here in Bangladesh, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has strongly come forward to form the Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council of Bangladesh (QAACB) in order to oversee the higher education quality and accredit both academic programs and higher education institutions. Besides, UGC has already launched, with support from the World Bank and the Government of Bangladesh, the Quality Assurance Unit (QAU) under its Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP). It is good to see that the project aims to cover all the universities in Bangladesh, both private and public, with equal emphasis.
The universities, which UGC covers in phases, have now got an opportunity to form their own Self-Assessment Committees (SAC) to oversee the Quality Assurance (QA) activities and to promote a quality enhancement culture within the university. The strong links which now exist between the UGC and the universities will give scopes to make long strides for ensuring quality in higher education it is hoped.
The universities in Bangladesh can no longer remain in isolation but should be accountable to the society and answerable to an awakened populace. The universities in Bangladesh, be public or private, must try to conform to the quintessence of international orientations, though keeping intact their national attributes.
With opportunities rising in an ever expanding arena of higher education in Bangladesh, it is time to see that the universities and also the University Grants Commission play not only as strong players but also as strong partners with more and more synergic engagements.
In conclusion, I say again that higher education institutes must be able to work with great aplomb to take up the task of engaging with communities more than any time before. While the problems they need to overcome are many, these may become opportunities if we act to face them in an astute manner.
The writer is the former Vice-Chancellor, University of Dhaka, and the former Chairman, Bangladesh Public Service Commission.