Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and BRAC aimed high through the creation of BRAC University in 2001. They founded the university through conviction of the importance of higher education to nurture talented people as leaders for the nation and beyond. They wanted transformative change in the standards and quality of higher education in Bangladesh. Abed was fascinated that universities could last for centuries whilst other organizations disappeared.
UNESCO and the World Bank published a grounding breaking report about the role of HE in developing countries - Peril and Promise (2000). The report recognized both the economic value and the cultural, social and spiritual value of higher education. It argued that developing countries must invest in higher education or they would be unable to compete in the knowledge economy of the future which would need the high-level skills and knowledge that higher education institutions seek to develop. In 1999, Malcolm Gillis, President of Rice University, wrote: ‘Today, more than ever before in human history, the wealth-or poverty-of nations depends on the quality of higher education. Those with a larger repertoire of skills and a greater capacity for learning can look forward to lifetimes of unprecedented economic fulfillment. But in the coming decades the poorly educated face little better than the dreary prospects of lives of quiet desperation.’
Now we are going through what is often referred to as a fourth industrial revolution, complicated by the world-wide pandemic. Many countries in the region have invested heavily in higher education as their economies move from low wage manufacturing into diverse economies based on knowledge and high-level skills. The World Bank, working with the Government of Bangladesh, has invested significantly in the digital and quality infrastructure and research capability of higher education as ‘essential to the country’s continued social and economic progress and to claiming its share of the burgeoning global knowledge economy.’ (referring to the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project – HEQEP: World Bank News 2016/10/10 Bangladesh-strengthens-higher-education-thrive-knowledge-economy)/
There are often criticisms of higher education institutions: questions whether too many people enter university and whether they are studying the right subjects. There are debates about the actual impact of higher education on student learning. The extent of university investment in vocational education is considerable, however, and often underestimated by commentators. The contribution of higher education to the economy around the world is well evidenced: it comes from research, knowledge exchange, professional training, workforce development, innovation and creativity.
The participation rate of young people in higher education in Bangladesh has expanded considerably in recent years but the rate (around 17%) is still relatively low compared, for example to China and India. Despite notable achievements, higher education in Bangladesh needs a major shift to benefit from the opportunities of exponential social and economic change. Bangladesh is ranked in the red zone for higher education in the United Nations Development Programme Global Knowledge Index GKI, with 112th position out of 138 countries on ‘knowledge performance.’ Each year, the publication of international university league tables provokes questions why Bangladeshi universities are so little represented in world rankings (For example; https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2019/09/12/no-bangladeshi-univer...). League tables are a marketing device that give a distorted impression but they can also be a powerful stimulus for institutional improvement and visibility.
It takes relatively long for Bangladeshi students to graduate and they often emerge to face dispiriting employment prospects. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed continued, in his later years, to insist on the national imperative to improve the quality of higher education aligned with international standards; he drew attention to the persistence of the challenges that had impelled the foundation of BRAC University nearly 20 years before, as evidenced in repeatedly high levels of graduate unemployment, the relatively poor resources available to higher education institutions and the under-development of university teachers. (Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: all institutions should work towards improving quality of education: report in the Dhaka Tribute; 11 March).
Is there a recipe to create excellent universities? We can certainly list some of the ingredients to create the eco-systems for excellent universities to flourish. Some of those ingredients are included in the Bangladesh national strategy for higher education 2018-20, including the priority for investment in research in connection to learning and teaching>
National investment is vital and the proportion of GDP that Bangladesh spends on education remains relatively low compared to neighbouring countries, although much has been achieved. Meanwhile, some governments have invested in the development of elite institutions to compete well internationally. The Finance Minister of India announced that an “enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and research institutions.” The Government of Malaysia upgraded four institutions into research universities and one university into an apex university.
Beyond the creation of elite institutions, there is a need for common, high standards in all institutions in the interests of all students. The relationship between primary, secondary and higher education is vital and the standards of students on entry to university. There were concerns, even before the grade inflation prompted by the pandemic (with all candidates having passed the recent 2020-21 HSC examinations and record numbers of top grades) about evidence of a mismatch between school and university standards, with students who performed well in HSC having difficulties with university admissions examinations (Hafiz GA Siddiqi Private Universities in Bangladesh: The Dynamics of Higher Education 2016 p44-5)
We must help students learn, encouraging active rather than passive learning, critical thinking, resourcefulness, entrepreneurship, service to others, multi-disciplinary study and avoiding over-emphasis on examinations which stifles learning. There is a need for deep and broad education alongside work experience and work-based learning. The STEM subjects are vital - science, technology, engineering and maths – alongside the arts and humanities and creative disciplines that help to make sense of the world, to address social and ethical problems and to encourage lateral and imaginative thinking.
The pandemic has prompted rapid adoption of online learning, with variable but promising results. BRAC University was among the first to introduce an online platform enabling students to continue studying. Online and blended learning (combination of face to face and online) are here to stay, with advantages of flexibility and accessibility. Technology can help to reinforce personal and tailored experience for students. At Tsingua University in China, courses in creative arts and physical education are conducted online: physical instructors use online tools to monitor health and fitness. Online learning can help shy students to take part. There are other instances of a more effective approach to education. There are striking examples of universities that have adapted their architecture to create learning spaces and they are using technology to facilitate more interactive learning – a move away from students being stuck in classrooms for excessively long lectures. There is another significant development in higher education – the potential to use data and analytics on how effectively students are engaging and progressing with their studies to anticipate problems and promote student success.
There is scope for national and international collaboration to develop good practice in teaching and learning. There is a vast body of international good practice in student engagement, modern approaches to teaching and learning, curriculum design, academic administration, student services, student retention, progression and achievement, and the configuration of accommodation and facilities. There is much talk in higher education circles of the value of ‘internationalization’. ‘Internationalization’ is about the higher education sector valuing diversity and functioning in an intimately connected, borderless world, where ideas and knowledge are shared. Universities can promote breadth of international connections for social and economic advancement. We have to work globally across cultures and nationalities. The theme of internationalization is in the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore who supported a concept of global community and who called for ‘unity in diversity’, expressed in the ideas for his own schools and the Visva-Bharati University where the ‘world makes its home in a single nest.’ Internationalization is a means of setting a high bar of standards and quality.
Some private universities have made a notable contribution to the country. The co-existence of private and public universities is an underutilized means of stimulating competition as well as collaboration for the improvement of quality in Bangladesh. Yet the private universities continue to work under tight restrictions. There are persistent challenges for Bangladeshi universities and especially private institutions to introduce new programmes, to try innovative approaches in teaching and learning and to bring industry into the classroom. Private universities are presently under tight restrictions on the introduction of new programmes of study and they are precluded from offering PhDs. There is a pressing need for Bangladesh to reap the advantage from a more effective and timely approach to academic programme development before the country loses to its international competitors. There is an imperative for higher education institutions to develop programmes that will address national economic and societal needs.
The governance of higher education institutions in Bangladesh needs attention. Institutions all over the world work best when they are not distracted by politicization. We need to promote the professional development of teachers and administrators and to ensure that appointments are on merit and that student admissions standards are sound. More particularly, governance is a challenge for the private universities. The Private University Act is being reformed; it is intended to provide for the effective oversight of higher education yet it tends to conflate corporate and academic governance. The founders of BRAC University observed, approvingly, that ‘most liberal arts colleges are private entities, independent in governance and management…’ They noted that ‘much of the success of the liberal arts college can be traced to a governance model that segregates responsibility for the specifics of the academic program from the responsibility for setting and sustaining the mission of the college.’ Effective governance requires a dynamic balance between the Vice-Chancellor as Chief Executive, the academic community and the trustees with their ultimate oversight. Similarly, the UNESCO/World Bank report ‘Peril and Promise.’ (2000) stressed governance and safeguards for independence as necessary to the ecosystem of higher education institutions and their service to society. (Liberal Learning for Practical Purposes; the Feasibility of a BRAC University (David W Fraser 1996; Peril and Promise: Higher Education and Developing Countries: 2000 World Bank/UNESCO; see also the work of Michael Shattock, former Registrar of Warwick University).
The national quality system should focus primarily on outputs rather than inputs. The UK Quality Assurance Agency developed a form of institutional review or audit which involved a periodic assessment of quality and standards in each institution, conducted through a visit by a team of trained, peer reviewers. The other was the Quality Code – a distillation of good practice in standards, student support and information – a reference point for all on how to provide an effective educational journey for all students. With an outcome-based system in Bangladesh, institutions with demonstrably robust systems could be given greater freedom to pursue programme development and educational innovation.
Bangladesh has an opportunity to build effective systems of quality assurance. The University Grants Commission and the World Bank have already created systems for the design and evaluation of programmes of study based on learning outcomes. There is scope, through the Bangladesh Higher Education Accreditation Council, to establish a national system of accreditation that could help to set common standards linked to international good practice.
Bangladesh can also learn from some of the mistakes and false starts in quality assurance elsewhere in the world as everyone learns together. The UK higher education system is presently being impelled into over-emphasis on short term employment outcomes and graduate starting salaries as a measure of the effectiveness of higher education when a much wider view is required. Facing the challenges of a digital age, we should never lose sight of the richness of education and the role of the universities. There is a moving story in the Bible of the night when God visits the new King Solomon in a dream and promises that he will grant Solomon whatever he wishes. And what does Solomon ask for? He asks for wisdom. God replies that he is pleased with Solomon since he could have asked for wealth, long life or the death of his enemies but he asked for wisdom and God responds by giving Solomon everything - wisdom and wealth. That is what higher education is ultimately for - the search for wisdom and knowledge at all levels that also opens the way to wealth or economic prosperity. If we overly stress the short term – graduate employment skills relevant for now - and we neglect deeper education and longer-term development, then, ironically, we may lose greater opportunities for the creation of wealth and economic development and impoverish society.
Higher education can have a most transforming impact when its wider role is understood. The President of the Republic of Ireland said:
“Be the arrow, not the target” was the title that the critical theorist, the late Raymond Williams, gave to his final address on communications…’‘The challenge we face is that we must confront as erroneous a prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking and clarity in written and spoken expression. These are the skills that will be essential to the citizens of the future to make informed choices about life-work balance, about what constitutes survival and consumption, and what is meant by human flourishing, solidarity or humanity itself.’
(speech to the European Universities Association on the future of universities by His Excellency Michael Higgins, President of the Republic of Ireland: https://www.universityworldnews.com/ post.php?story=20160412194215660: The Universities in the Nineteenth Century; Michael Sanderson 1975).
Higher education institutions serve society through pure and applied research and speculative thinking and the transmission of culture. They have a role to speak truth to power. They are a source of technical and vocational training and of broad and deep education. They promote the creation of what Sir Fazle Hasan Abed called ‘enlightened elites.’ Higher Education is a means of life -long learning and enabling equality and inclusion and enabling people to contribute meaningfully to society. Now is the time for investment and a shift of approach to give Bangladesh the thriving and internationally connected higher education sector that a major and growing nation needs.
This Article has been written by Dr. Dave Dowland, Registrar, Brac University and published by Security World BD
Link - http://securityworldbd.com/details-page/30