Building a World-Class University
SYED SAAD ANDALEEB argues that quality education for all
is a right and not a privilege
THE Rise of Asian Universities, an article written in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2010) by Richard Levin, President of Yale University, reflects the new dynamism in higher education that has gripped the Asian region. The article provides insight that provokes serious thinking about the state of higher education in Bangladesh, its intended purpose, and what it has really accomplished over the years.
For educational planners and thinkers, this is a "must-read" article to imbue its message seriously, contemplate deeply, and act in right earnest -- and soon -- if they are sincere about building a higher education system in Bangladesh that is linked to the nation's growth and development.
If nothing else, my desire behind writing this piece is to stoke the fire once again and buttress the idea that the higher education system in Bangladesh must be reinvented for the 21st century. In such a system there must be a few crown jewels to lead the way, blazing a path of innovative, relevant, exciting, and context-specific education.
Unfortunately, in a systematic search of world university rankings there was no crown jewel to be found representing Bangladesh. Only the name of the University of Dhaka peeped out timidly with a ranking somewhere in the range of 500-599.
A similar search of top ranking Asian universities showed that Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea dominate the top ten, while IIT Bombay is ranked 30th, followed by Kanpur (34), Delhi (36), and Roorkee (63). Not a single university from Bangladesh was categorised among the top 200 Asian universities.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the deep-seated problems that exist in the entire education system: Even to this day, our educational system remains very parochial, colonial, and primitive in orientation.
Such a system will not take Bangladesh forward; instead it will stunt the nation and render it ineffective in competing with its neighbors in the region who were at par on education around the time of independence and who have forged ahead resolutely in leaps and bounds, leaving Bangladesh near the bottom of the heap in educational attainments in the region and, indeed, the world.
|Photo: AMIRUL RAJIV
I have tried to nurture and infuse academics from and in Bangladesh to dream of building "world-class" institutions. This is a comprehensive task that requires persistent and contemporary thinking, a credible and critical mass of academic leaders, organisation and team effort, participation of the best and brightest, and substantial resources. When brought to fruition, the returns from a world-class institution can be incalculable.
First here are some key insights gleaned from Levin's article:
* Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore -- and now China and India -- have forever altered the global balance of power.
* Their impressive achievements began to take shape in the 1960s when they started providing greater access to post-secondary education.
* In China, nine universities have begun to receive supplemental government funding to create -- pay heed -- China's Ivy League. (China has begun to recognise the need for elite schools that will produce the nation's thinkers and leaders).
* In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced its intentions to build 14 new comprehensive "world-class" universities (Their IITs were designed for a similar purpose and now the race is on to reach the very top).
* In the 1990s, China's gross enrollment ratio (GER) [in tertiary education] -- the percent of university age population enrolled in post-secondary education -- was at par with Bangladesh at 5 per cent. By 2006 China was spending 1.5 per cent of its GDP on "higher education." The result: the number of higher education institutions (HEIs) have doubled from 1,022 to 2,263, with access to higher education reaching 5.5 million in 2007 from one million earlier and with a GER of 23 per cent (compared to 58 per cent in Japan, 59 in the UK, and 82 in the United States). For Bangladesh, the GER in 2007 according to a Unesco database was 8 per cent for males and 4 per cent for females.
Having dramatically expanded access to higher education, the Asian giants are beginning to refocus. It is now their intent to build universities that can compete with the finest in the world. Levin goes on to observe: "The governments of China, India, Singapore and South Korea are explicitly seeking to elevate some of their universities to this exalted status [world-class] because they recognise the important role that university-based scientific research has played in driving economic growth in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. And they understand that world-class universities are the ideal place to educate students for careers in science, industry, government, and civil society creating people who have the intellectual breadth and critical-thinking skills to solve problems, to innovate, and to lead."
The final gem in Levin's piece suggests the need to prioritise research that world-class universities must aggressively pursue. Referring to Vannevar Bush's 1945 report to President Harry Truman, Levin shows how research was instituted and ingrained in academia by the US government.
The three principles on which research was firmly established still govern today and are as follows:
* The federal government bears the primary responsibility for funding basic science.
* The universities -- rather than government-run labs, nonteaching research institutions, or private companies -- are the primary institutions responsible for carrying out government-funded research.
* Although the government determines the total amount of funding available … projects and programs are assessed … through an intensely competitive process of peer review.
Levin's article will hopefully roil the thought processes of educational planners to contemplate and assess: 1) the present image and standing of the HEIs, 2) what they want to be (can they dream of being world-class?) and 3) how they want to get there. There's been enough talk (it is cheap), enough writing (that few people read), and enough conferences (that burn time and resources but have little else to show). It is time to roll up the sleeves and begin to act.
A key question that might arise is what constitutes world-class? A document entitled, "The Top American Research Universities" acknowledges that when the rankings are revealed periodically (e.g., in the US News and World Report), many "universities decry the commercialism of the rankings, attack the methodology of the ranking process, and proudly distribute to their alumni those rankings in which they appear high."
This suggests that there is no single set of measures that will be acceptable to the wide variety of universities that are in existence today to define their rank -- something akin to the corruption perception index that ruffles the feathers of those nations that rank as most corrupt. Yet, in the absence of a perfect system, what is the alternative?
Also, while Bangladesh may not have the resources that China or India can bring to bear on reshaping higher education, it is my belief, and a very strong one too, that the human and financial capital exists in Bangladesh to begin building "the first" world-class university. As Lao Tzu has indelibly impressed upon the world: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
There will be many obstacles, undoubtedly. But others in the Asian neighbourhood are solving them; why should we throw up our hands? At the same time, it is also prudent to be realistic that it will probably take a long while to move into the ranks of the elite-100 or better. Those at the top will not be easy to dislodge. But, with the right effort and intention, it is possible to move from nowhere or the group of 500+ to the group of 400 or even 300 as starters. That is the very least that can be expected of institutions from the land of the Oxford of the East as they aspire to improve in ranking, while transforming themselves into powerful agents of change.
To build a world-class institution of higher learning, it is important for planners at the highest levels to grapple with a few basic questions now:
* Foremost among the questions is how do we transform the political climate in the country and recalibrate it from destructive conflict -- where the nation is sacrificed to the political party and the political party to a few individuals -- to accommodation of diverse views, and ultimately to one of cooperation and healthy competition. Without an enabling political environment, nothing of substance can really be cultivated and nurtured.
* How do we construct a relationship of trust between those who will teach and those who will build? I believe the necessary resources have not been forthcoming from industry and private sources as in the developed world because of a serious credibility gap that derives from lack of confidence in the intentions and/or abilities of today's academic leaders.
* Should we build anew or should we reorganise one or a few chosen universities where higher quality is to be rapidly infused to attain world-class status? For the case of reorganisation, can we retire the non-performing faculty quickly (many apparently are politically recruited in the public universities whose functions are only remotely connected to academic activities, if at all) by paying them reasonable severances (with government and industry funding) or transferring them out to other universities?
* How do we recruit academic exemplars to represent the universities? What needs to be done to attract and recruit the best and brightest from home and abroad, and not those who would choose the teaching profession because there was nothing better available to them?
* How do we get the faculties to engage in research? The leading universities of the world are creators and repositories of knowledge that has gained them their very distinctiveness and influence.
Once a process is initiated to build world-class institutions, they must begin to play the vital role of transforming Bangladesh society into a knowledge-based one. For this, they must engage deeply in knowledge generation (research). In fact, an important objective of academia is to conceptualise, generate, disseminate, use, and extend a body of knowledge by establishing knowledge zones, knowledge enterprises and learning communities for the ultimate purpose of building a better and context-relevant society.
Knowledge zones are clusters of researchers working together in a particular area to advance the state of knowledge in that area (e.g., better technologies, human rights, governance, water resources, health services, etc.). Clusters of knowledge zones comprise a knowledge enterprise (e.g., a particular university or research institution). A collection of knowledge enterprises constitutes a learning community (e.g., the public or private universities and the research institutions where research is a significant activity) that is vibrant with ideas and innovations, thus enabling it to spring to greater heights.
Can Bangladesh build world-class institutions? I believe it can if it embraces the best of ideas and accommodates the right people, with the right view, right intentions, right speech, right action, right effort and right concentration as the great sage Gautama Buddha would have implored and whose ideas have been imbued by our neighbours: the East Asian giants.
The present-day higher education system is anemic and lacking in vitality, given its adherence to parochialism, inertia, lack of leadership, and a colonial mindset. The status quo has simply lost its luster and meaning. Let us take that first bold step to nurture a world-class university. With the process in place, other universities will surely follow in its wake, thereby gradually rebuilding the higher education system to its former greatness, glory, and gravitas.
Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Program Chair, Black School of Business, Penn State Erie; Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies; and President, Bangladesh Development Initiative.