Higher education should aspire to be BD’s dynamic
The Government of Bangladesh frequently cites the country's impressive GDP figures as proof positive that the country is on an upward trajectory. With a GDP of $US 221.4 billion in 2016 (Source: World Bank) there is certainly grounds for optimism, but no room for complacency.
In order to put things into perspective it is important to examine both the Ease of Doing Business Index and the Fragile States Index, for by so doing it is possible to gain a more realistic picture. The Ease of Doing Business Index in its Doing Business 2018 report (Produced by the World Bank Group) places Bangladesh 177 out of 190 states.
This assessment makes for particularly sobering reading when Bangladesh's placing is compared with Brunei (56), Indonesia (72), Malaysia (24) and Singapore (2). Clearly this raises questions about what needs to be done to make the country more competitive and business friendly. Similarly, the Fragile States Index (2017) places Bangladesh as 39th (the higher the placing the more fragile the state). In comparison Brunei (122), Indonesia (94), Malaysia (116) and Singapore (161) are all deemed more stable than Bangladesh and thus more attractive places in which to invest and do business.
In respect of the Fragile States Index there are twelve criteria including mounting demographic pressure and uneven economic development along group lines. Such indices are useful not least because they help concentrate minds and can serve as focus that will help the country to address systemic weaknesses.
Whilst there is no golden key that unlocks various deep seated and often complex problems, there is at least one area of human endeavour that is central to problem solving and to national development, and that is education. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have all ensured that education at all levels is well resourced, rigorous and ambitious, and thus education has proved to be the dynamo of positive change.
Primary, secondary and tertiary education each need to be priorities. Again, comparisons are instructive. According to the World Bank the following percentages of GDP are spent on education as of 2016: Bangladesh (2.5 per cent), Brunei (4.4 per cent), Indonesia (3.5 per cent), Malaysia (4.8 per cent) and Singapore (3.5 per cent), hence there is a direct correlation between education spending and national development. If Bangladesh was to increase education by 1 per cent of GDP it would result in an additional 40 per cent of education funding, a figure that would have the potential to be transformative.
In view of the central role that education plays in national development and well-being it is important to acknowledge the complementary role that the both the public and private sector can play. This is particularly true of the higher education sector. Since the liberalisation of the tertiary sector in Bangladesh there has been a proliferation of private universities and colleges, a number of which have become exemplars of how education can be delivered in dynamic and forward-thinking institutions. The private sector helps absorb some of those students who cannot find places at public sector institutions, albeit from those families who are able to afford the fees. As ever there are important questions that need to be asked about quality control and professional development.
Certainly, it is reasonable to expect that those who lecture undergraduates should have a Masters degree or above, and those lecturing Masters Students or above should have a PhD.
Moreover, it is imperative that academics undertake in continuous professional development and are both encouraged and expected to engage in scholarly research that results in academic papers that are of sufficient quality that they are accepted for publication in international academic journals.
This exposure to academia internationally is an important part of academic benchmarking, one that is relevant to all academics whether they work in the public or private sector.
The private sector in theory should be more agile, and thus better able to adapt its offering to meet the needs of students. Certainly, the very best of Bangladesh's private higher education providers are attuned to the importance of stakeholder engagement.
Sadly, there are also some more unscrupulous providers on the margins of the sector who are only interested in a numbers game, one that sees the student experience being irrelevant and the quality of the education offered being patchy at best. Thus, it is beholden on the best providers to differentiate themselves by the quality of the offering and the desire to emulate the very best of comparable providers internationally. It is equally important to learn from best practice, both in the public and private sector.
In this regard it is interesting to see that the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Sciences (www.ifescu.ac.bd) at Chittagong University is held up an example of providing education that is far more participatory in nature. Equally, it is essential that the value of heuristic learning is not overlooked.An increasing number of private education providers internationally are at the forefront of Lean Thinking (ww.lean.org), something that is sorely needed in Bangladesh.
The following shows what can be done: www.buckingham.ac.uk/business/bleu The tertiary sector has an important role to play in innovation; and it should be far more proactive in respect of helping drive up education standards nationally. Currently, the private sector, like the public sector is adversely affected by inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy.
Thus, the sector must endeavour to articulate its concerns to the Ministry of Education. The leading private providers need to work together to ensure that a Bangladesh Higher Education Research Council is established sooner rather than later.
By so doing both the public and private sector would benefit and thus strengthen Bangladesh's academic standing and have the added bonus of making the country a more attractive destination for international students. Quality control needs to be at the heart of all education, yet sadly, there are still some who put profit before principles. Private higher education in Bangladesh must strive to innovate, develop and refine its Unique Selling Point; by so doing it can play a positive and purposeful role in the life of the nation.
The offering that providers make needs to adapt with the times, and so it is perfectly reasons to expect the best providers to broaden their portfolios to include engineering, fashion & design, health & life sciences, media & communications, nursing, psychology, tourism & hospitality and technology & innovation.
The days of offering purely English, business and IT courses are long gone. The sector should be making use of Moodle and other learning platforms as a means to ensure a smooth and engaging learning experience. It is also imperative that institutions forge meaningful links with industry and become knowledge and learning hubs.
By having a focussed and innovate private higher education sector Bangladesh will be better placed to drive up standards nationally, and thus become more attractive for Foreign Direct Investment. Leadership and foresight will be crucial to future success, and so what is needed is a Vision 2050. By 2050 Bangladesh is projected to have a population of 202 million (Source: www.populationpyramid.net), a demographic challenge that requires the entire nation to be better educated and hopefully gainfully employed.
The Private Higher Education Sector should aspire to be the dynamo that helps drive forward Vision 2050, and by so doing not only rise to the challenges ahead but play a pivotal role in helping the country develop and prosper.
Dr P. R. Datta FCIM is Executive Chair, Academy of Business & Retail Management, UK and Mark T. Jones BA (Hons) is Editor-in-Chief at International Journal of Higher Education Management