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Friday, June 14, 2024

Dissecting and Debating Quality in Higher Education: The Missing Link

“It is impossible to have a complete education system without an appropriate and strong higher education system….I am not for a moment suggesting that primary education and secondary education are not at the very essence of development…[but that is] not enough. You have to have centers of excellence and learning and training if you are going to advance the issue of poverty and development in developing countries….the key…is higher education, not just on the technological side, but to create people with enough wisdom to be able to use it.” ___ James D. Wolfensohn (The World Bank Group’s ninth president)

The 1st CETL (Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) conference — titled “In pursuit of Quality in Higher Education: Challenges Ahead” held on 22-23 August 2019 at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) — brought the serious issue of quality in higher education to the fore. Truly, a debate on quality in higher education was swirling around the academics, intellectuals, educationalists, and students at the two-day conference. Some 32 papers were presented and two plenary discussions were held. Few vice-chancellors – present and former – from different universities also participated in the discussion, and raised some relevant questions regarding the purpose of universities in Bangladesh and the skills our graduates have or lack.

In the plenary discussion held on 23 August, Professor Salimullah Khan – Director, Center for Advanced Theory, ULAB – came up with the definition of higher education and did not agree to term it “higher education” the universities generally impart to students. What he called is professional education (undergraduate/bachelor and graduate/masters programs or degrees), and his statement triggered a debate. According to him, the private universities offer degrees like BBA, MBA, BA/MA in English, B.Sc in Civil/Electrical Engineering, B.Sc in Computer Science & Engineering, B.Pharm, and etc. Our universities are mostly “teaching universities” that produce graduates for the job market in both public and private sectors. Since the private universities don’t have UGC permission to run M.Phil/Ph.D programs, they give just professional degrees. In fact, the public universities are doing almost the same thing. He expressed his frustration over the UGC’s non-cooperation in this regard because he thinks few private universities are already in a position to run these research-based programs (M.Phil/Ph.D) which are considered “higher education”. To avoid further confusion, we could call it tertiary education.

In the same plenary session, ULAB pro-VC Professor Dr. Shamsad Mortuza was a bit critical about HEQEP (Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project) run by the UGC in collaboration with the World Bank and the Ministry of Education, Government of Bangladesh. He defined the word ‘education’ and put emphasis on blending the buzzword “quality” and the local needs conforming to our culture. He also underscored the need of making a holistic plan or approach and fixing the supply chain (primary-secondary-higher secondary) on priority basis. Otherwise, the idea of enhancing or ensuring quality in higher education would not come to fruition.

Tertiary education (higher education) plays a key role in supporting primary and secondary education. Quality tertiary education is necessary for sustainable progress in basic education. The supply of qualified school teachers and leaders, capacity for curriculum design, research on teaching-learning, economic analysis and management – these and many more essential components of primary education reform are hampered by weak tertiary education system.

However, when it comes to talking about the current state of higher (tertiary) education in Bangladesh, we see huge quantitative changes in terms of the number of universities and also the number of students enrolling every year and passing out of the universities with Masters Degrees. Some of us also tend to look back at the glorious past of our universities and compare it with today’s sorry picture. It’s true that we had some great scholars, intellectuals and scientists at public universities once upon a time and lost them over the years. It’s also true that now we are passing a barren time because our universities are producing millions of graduates every year but failing to produce a good number of graduates who are fit for social/political leadership and suitable for globally competitive jobs. Unfortunately, many of the university graduates are found to be lacking global skills/soft skills – – communication, leadership, critical thinking, team-building, problem-solving, time-management, self-esteem, empathy, resilience, integrity, sense of responsibility, self-motivation and so on. Some of them are related to personal competence and some are social competence. They are also called “life skills” which are much needed for the graduates to cope with the fast-changing society/world. Now the question is – should the students learn these skills at primary or tertiary level?

CETL Conference at ULAB

Another pertinent question is – what’s the purpose of university? We know that the purpose of a university is to create knowledge, disseminate knowledge and apply it in the relevant fields for the betterment of the community or society. But this is a global phenomenon that universities are becoming more concerned with employability and, as such, promoting the subjects/programs which are market-driven or job-oriented. This is happening because free market economy plays a vital role here. We also observe that some departments under the School /Faculty of Arts and Humanities are shrinking noticeably due to lack of marketability or employability. This is what we see at universities across the globe.

In the era of fourth industrial revolution, developing countries and transition economies are facing the new challenges of supporting knowledge-driven development and the old challenges of promoting quality, efficiency, and equity in higher education. In view of these challenges, the Government of Bangladesh has already prepared a Strategic Plan for Higher Education in Bangladesh 2006-2026 supported by the World Bank. And despite some reluctance and resistance shown by the public universities in the beginning of HEQEP, the universities are now trying to comply with the neoliberal policies prescribed by the World Bank. Yet, many academics are very critical about and concerned about the commercialization of tertiary education in the name of neo-liberalism.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) – which were once focused on training civil servants – now recognize that they should produce graduates not only for public sector or civil service jobs, but also for the private sector and, in particular, the service sector. But private sector jobs are less predictable and less secure than public sector employment. This is why, most of the university graduates opt for civil service jobs/public sector employment. This tendency also leads them to be less concerned with sound subject-knowledge and more serious about taking preparation for BCS exam. And since the rate of unemployment is on the rise, students want to get a degree within 4-5 years and enter into the job market by any means. On the other hand, some who don’t find job go for second Masters (evening program) from any public university. Yet, many of them are not found to be equipped with life/social skills – which the employers look for in a graduate. We also hear that there’s a mismatch between the graduates’ skills and the employers’ demands or the market needs. The academics are also confused about whether they should teach the students social/ emotional skills or subject-matters. Nevertheless, academics at some universities have already started working on outcome-based curriculum and providing the students with outcome-based education (OBE) which is the need of time.    

In line with the neoliberal policy, many higher education institutions/universities are involved in commercial activities — including consultant services, contract research, and sale of training services (offering short professional courses/diplomas) to private enterprises — and thus contributing to the development of tertiary education which is more responsive to economic and labour market needs. Besides, many public universities run evening Masters programs in various departments.

Nowadays, some academics/policymakers often talk about ensuring higher education of international standard, but unfortunately our institutional leadership is not of international standard. Internationalization, employability, research contribution and community services are considered to be the key factors if a university wants to earn name and fame in a global arena. Since our universities, with weak institutional leadership, lack international characteristics and spend a meager amount of money (funding) on research, none of them can/could manage to secure a satisfactory place in Times Higher Education (THE) and QS rankings. According to Philip G. Altbach (American professor, author and researcher on international higher education), here is a list of characteristics of leading international universities:

  • Excellence in research
  • Top quality professors
  • Favourable working conditions
  • Job security and good salary and benefits
  • Adequate facilities
  • Adequate funding, including predictability year-to-year
  • Academic freedom and an atmosphere of intellectual excitement
  • Faculty self-governance

Now it’s time to position our best universities in international rankings!


The author is an associate professor and chair, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh. He could be reached at nahidneazy@yahoo.com.

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