University movement: universal aspects
The special status to select universities is not a per venue idea. Consider UK for example. Oxford and Cambridge that stand out among the old universities is forming an ‘elite’ tier of universities. Then the 22 ‘Old’ (pre-1992) universities, together with the ‘elite’ two, are forming the ‘Russell Group’; subsequently a third cluster contains 13 old universities and 54 new (post-1992); a fourth cluster contains 19 new universities.
A stark division is evident between the old pre-1992 universities on the one hand and the new post-1992 universities on the other, with large differences evident in terms of research activity, economic resources, academic selectivity and social mix.
The difference between old and new universities with respect to teaching quality, however, is much more minor; however universities’ primary concern is not always teaching. The differences between the ‘elite’ tier and the rest are substantial in relation to research activity; Oxford and Cambridge also serve much more socioeconomically advantaged student bodies: the percentage of students not from low participation neighbourhoods is similar to that for cluster 2 universities, but the percentage coming from higher social class backgrounds is around ten percentage points higher and the percentage coming from private schools is around twice as high at 34.9% compared to 16.1% .
So ‘elitism’ matters. Furthermore, cluster four universities admit a less socioeconomically advantaged student body with respect to low participation neighbourhood, social class and school type. Being less-well-resourced these universities continued existence is most imperilled by the growing privatization and marketization of the UK higher education system.
Now look into China. Chinese government has ‘project 211’ running; a phrase specially meaning 21 century elitism of top 100 Chinese universities(only a 6% of Chinese universities and university colleges!!!); the idea is to develop research capacity in some particular areas with some particular universities. Project 211 is a project of National Key Universities and colleges initiated in 1995 by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, with the intent of raising the research standards of high-level universities and cultivating strategies for socio-economic development.
During the first phase of the project, from 1996 to 2000, approximately US$2.2 billion was distributed. China today has 116 institutions of higher education designated as 211 Project institutions for having met certain scientific, technical, and human resources standards and for offering advanced degree programs. Project 211 schools take on the responsibility of training four-fifths of doctoral students, two-thirds of graduate students, half of students from abroad and one-third of undergraduates. They offer 85% of the state’s key subjects, hold 96% of the state’s key laboratories, and consume 70% of scientific research funding.
The question is why University of Dhaka (DU), Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) find it embarrassing to comply with government’s proposal of being assigned a ‘special status’; as is proposed in Farashuddin commission’s report on the education sector reform (which, experts believe, should be augmented by the consideration of Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University(BSMMU) as well)?
These universities proper understanding in this regard can see a satisfactory solution to the growing nervousness between university academics and bureaucrats which the country is experiencing over a log period.
In fact, it should be part of the responsibilities of these universities in giving countries hap-hazard public university sector a shape; seems that is what government also wants and perhaps only with little disappointment to scores of other public universities most of which are newer and are struggling to provide any education better than what government colleges used to provide some decades ago. Special four universities will produce special graduates.
Our previous degree college going students are now going to universities. But the same students, or of similar calibre, are securing very high CGPA’s , as by the name ‘university’ the teachers teaching the courses are doing all the assessments. Very few of those teachers have any foreign degree and therefore have very little university level capacity. As a result students are getting exhilarating CGPA’s without facing real challenge of university education. This is true for most of the newer universities. On the other hand look into the proposed special four universities. Good many faculties there are from top most challenging universities of the world. So even the best band of students find it challenging to secure a CGPA comparable to those easily managed by the second category or left over students of these college-turned and/or recently established universities; not to talk about hundreds of those from special universities who unfortunately couldn’t manage competent CGPA due to highly challenging requirements but in reality are way better than those with very good CGPA’s from newer or college-turned universities.
In PSC and other recruitments CGPA creates an impression; and in many cases CGPA is the only benchmark for initial screening of applications leading to the selection of good many second category or left over students with higher CGPA from newer or college-turned universities by the price of first category students of special universities who struggled to manage a good CGPA due to challenging and demanding learning and assessment methodologies applied by most of the highly qualified faculty members of special universities. Moreover the high-jacking through ministers, local lawmaker’s and other stakeholders, which has turned rampant in recent days in, in seeing students from newer universities of different localities being successful in various recruitments slaughters the first category students of special universities again.
So government’s willingness to assign special status to some universities will not be just and fair to only the academics working for these universities but also it will bring some justice to the first category students of special universities; provided they receive preferential consideration as an incentive for their hard works which are required to cope with the challenging learning environment of the special universities. Clustering public universities will create more space in sorting out the issues between university academics and bureaucrats; as salaries, fringe benefits and research supports can vary from cluster to cluster; and government can convince the bureaucrats that their superiority crisis can be justified only with some clusters but not all.
Presently, government sympathises that perhaps bureaucrats claim that they are not academically inferior to all the academics working for all 37 public universities is not totally unfounded!
On the other hand promotion to higher positions is increasingly becoming competitive for academics with proposed special status universities; and in practice that’s what it should be. These four universities will maintain all significant research projects of the country; and will publish only in those journals which are managed by the outlets Springer, Elsevier, World Scientific, Taylor & Francis and John Wiley (S-E-WS-TF-JW); and will not publish in so called high impact factor (IF) journals which have very little or no international standard visibility.
Of course, faculties outside these special four universities can also be part of research teams which must be headed by (team leader) faculties from one of these special four. These universities with special status will create reputation for Bangladeshi research in internationally competitive forums through their publications in S-E-WS-TF-JW outlets. So instead of allocating the funds to 37 universities and very few publishing in S-E-WS-TF-JW journals; the total fund will now be allocated through universities with special status requiring the faculties of these special universities to work hard in fulfilling the responsibilities of creating an international research profile of the country. After five year another review might see 2/3 more universities with special status; after ten years may be five more and so on.
We need pragmatic policy; otherwise not only in 44 years but even in 144 years we can’t make any difference in creating an overall international standard research profile of the country. Quality assurance is such an important issue that many universities in UK had to stop operating even after functioning for decades or so, simply for failing to produce graduates competent enough to survive in international competition.
Similar incidence happened in other countries including Canada. Running an institution by the name ‘university’ is not meaningful if its competence doesn’t help prepare graduates of international profiles.
So, our newer universities activities coordinated and/or supervised by four special universities in four categories is very much necessary and can make a visible difference provided political interference is reduced to its minimum. The spree of establishing so many universities over so short a period must see a coordination and quality assurance check associated. We need to make sure that government spending for newer universities is indeed producing graduates of higher standing compare to those previously produced by colleges.
Dr Sharif Mozumder is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, University of Dhaka. Email: email@example.com