Higher Education in BD: Challenges and Responses
It is an accepted phenomenon that we are living in a VUCA world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The rapid change the world has witnessed since 2000 is remarkable and looks set to continue. Today`s business context is often turbulent and uncertain, sometimes hostile and invariably complex. It is important that business evolve, learn and innovate in order to survive and thrive. Organisations that do not change are likely to be victims of the natural selection in the market place. Change is a constant, something that all sectors, including that of education, need to be conscious of.
Education is fundamental to the well-being of society, and we would do well to note what Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948) had to say. He spoke of Buniyadi Shiksha (Fundamental Education) stating that; "Education is that which liberates." Gandhi rightly observed that a proper education is fundamental to the functioning of a creative and democratic society.
The Higher Education Sector in Bangladesh is facing many challenges and yet where there are problems there are also opportunities. Those familiar with the work of Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) will be aware of his notion that creativity comes through destruction. Not that we are advocating destruction, we certainly believe that the time is right for a thorough reappraisal, and possibly a reconfiguration of the Higher Education sector in Bangladesh. The main intention here is to identify the various challenges facing the sector and suggest some constructive ways forward.
There are many challenges and complexities in higher education, while some are global, others are local in nature. Challenges come in different shapes and sizes and most of the time they are unique to an institution. The Europe 2020 strategy document has identified three main global challenges for the Higher Education Sector, these are: (1) Globalisation pressures; (2) Supply & demand for Higher Education; (3) Funding problems in the Higher Education sector. However, when we look at Bangladesh, we see also some additional challenges.
Based on our recent research, we have identified the following seven major challenges: (1) Access to Higher Education; (2) Equity; (3) Quality Education; (4) Governance Structure; (5) A paucity of resources; (6) Weak Information Technology Infrastructure; (7) Poor Research Output.
Since the Private University Act (1992) the Higher Education sector has undergone a rapid expansion, that said, still less than 15% of the country's population enter higher education. If Bangladesh is to fulfil the Government agenda it will be essential to address these seven key areas:
1) Access to Higher Education
With a rapidly expanding population Bangladesh has a shortage of university places. It is vitally important that resources are set aside not only for the maintenance and expansion of universities and colleges, but for the training of academic and specialist ancillary staff. There are also legitimate questions that need to be asked about a secondary education system that appears to produce marked regional inconsistencies in respect of literacy and numeracy. A conscious effort needs to be made to ensure that all pupils are given sufficient grounding and preparation as to make university both a realistic and attainable goal.
As things stand vast swathes of the population have little or no hope of accessing higher education due to poverty or the fact that they come from marginalised communities. Both Public and Private universities need to make greater efforts to provide support for those who may be economically disadvantaged. Furthermore, all institutions need to have policies in respect of institutional access and support for those whose students who have a disability. Inclusion rather than being an optional extra, should be a core part of national aspiration.
3) Quality Education
What might have been deemed sufficient in the mid-1970s does not necessarily engage and inspire in the Twenty First Century. A use of outmoded pedagogical methods has resulted on an over emphasis on the memorising and regurgitation of facts, rather than on problem solving, thinking and the development of new theories. In some disciplines the near total absence of heuristic learning results in programmes of study lacking relevance and meaning. In respect of faculty members there are concerns that staff are sometimes appointed as a result of nepotism or political leanings as opposed to appointment and promotion on merit. Some academic staff have several posts and often appear to focus on external businesses, consultancies, politics etc. to the detriment of the university students that they are meant to teach and support.
4) Governance Structure
Since the University Grants Commission (UGC) was founded some 45 years ago efforts have been made to provide a national framework for education. With the expansion of the number of institutions the UGC has been rather more preoccupied with the arrangements for examinations rather than the frequency and rigor of institutional inspections. Certain older institutions have become complacent, whilst others have seen politics inveigle its way into leadership and management structures that as a consequence has resulted in issues invariably being viewed through the distorting prism of party politics. Governance structures across the entire sector require reviewing, and in some instances overhauling with a view to both greater scrutiny and transparency. It is imperative that those in leadership roles do not neglect their duty to protect freedom of speech and academic discourse.
5) A paucity of resources
Certain campuses are having to cope with student number far in excess of those that the buildings were originally designed for. Practical subjects, especially the likes of the sciences and engineering, often lack equipment and the wherewithal to allow students to engage in the type of hands on learning that is needed. Libraries where they exist are often more akin to museums that modern learning hubs. Lecturers are often expected to teach in cramped and overcrowded rooms that lack the essential teaching aids and equipment. Most institutions do not have adequate teaching and learning software's, electronic resources, access to online scholarly Journals etc.
6) Weak Information Technology Infrastructure
Many of those in leadership and management roles have only a limited grasp of the centrality of IT in the modern learning process. Some senior staff and lectures verge on the technophobic and thus make little effort to acquire knowledge on new systems, let alone champion them. Many institutions have limited internet access, and minimal IT usage in education delivery and administrative functions. As things stand it also should be a matter of concern that uptake of the use of anti-plagiarism software remains very low. Issues such as Data Protection and Cyber Bullying have yet to receive the attention that they deserve.
7) Poor Research Output
Compared with other nations Bangladesh's Research Output remains disappointingly low. To date many academics are not engaged in meaningful research, nor have a desire to do so. It is imperative that positive steps are taken both to address the dearth of research and to ensure that Bangladeshi academics fully engage with their international peers. Emphasis needs to be placed on academic papers being submitted to reputable international academic journals. It would also help if a greater percentage of academics had opportunities to participate in international academic conferences. Far greater cognizance needs to be taken of World University Rankings with the express intention of improving Bangladesh's performance across the board.
So, does all this mean that the Bangladesh Higher Education is on a downward spiral? The answer must be a most emphatic, No! The solution for the challenges above lies in the capacity and vision of the Bangladeshi people themselves. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, where relevant good practice can be adopted and adapted from elsewhere. The establishment of a Bangladesh Higher Education Research Council would be an excellent start, and this would be a message of intent. The country has two superb networks in ASAEN and the Commonwealth and should be seeking to forge partnerships and collaborations across both. Countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK all offer excellent examples of how to focus on quality and innovation. Every Bangladeshi university should be looking to capitalise on the opportunities offered by the likes of The Association of Commonwealth Universities (www.acu.ac.uk). Equally, with Bangladeshi's pool of talented IT professionals the entire sector could benefit from developing Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCS) of the standard that are found on www.futurelearn.com. MOOCS in Bangla and English would also be a means to engage a whole new audience in an increasingly interconnected world.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Bangladesh was forged thanks to tremendous courage and vision. It has known greatness in the past, and there is no reason why it should not prepare for great things in the future. Now is the time to for the Higher Education sector to iron out its weakness and imperfects so that it will be ready to play its part, not for the benefit of the few, but the betterment of the entire nation.
Dr PR Datta is Executive Chair, Academy of Business & Retail Management, UK and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Business and Retail Management Research, and Mark T Jones is Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Higher Education Management