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Dhaka University: Is it still 'Oxford of the East'?

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Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed :
Any good university must be able to support the learning process. It must have modern buildings, qualified instructors and adequate high-technology facilities. The most important aspect is that the university must be well managed. Experts say that any educational institution must have the following four elements. First, it must have tangible assets like physical infrastructure, etc. Second, it must have human resources like excellent teachers and directing staff. The third is that a first class university should possess its own internal culture. The last is that it must have a good operational system.
To elaborate on the third element, any university worth its name must develop a culture with regard to discipline, recruitment, merging of schools, facilities construction, assessment system, etc. It has to follow a select "package of practices" and then keep upgrading itself. The operational system of a university must allow schools to be run freely by educationists. It must have autonomous right of independent thinking and free expression, within of course the country's laws and constitution. Today, most of the campuses around the country are disturbed, because the authorities have not developed this internal culture. There is therefore no academic atmosphere. Hence creative work cannot take place.
One policy that needs to be reconsidered relates to the appointment of the vice chancellor (VC). Any university should be led by accomplished persons in a society. The VC should not only be academic minded but must also be a good administrator and a leader. His image should be impeccable. Nowadays, VCs seem to possess academic degrees. But they are not always able to carry forward the institution to the next logical level as many of them lack administrative skills or an understanding of how to steer the institution into the future. The foundation of any education system is the primary sector. No country has achieved prosperity without good primary schools able to impart to all children, boys and girls, the ability to read and write, and understand simple mathematics and science. The secondary sector builds on this foundation.
If the foundation is not solid-if only a minority of children ever master primary school material-then their performance at secondary and higher secondary levels will inevitably suffer. Many able children will be unable to master the more advanced material taught at this level. Either they will not enter secondary school or, if they do, they will likely drop out. Finally, all countries require a good number of teachers to succeed at the tertiary level. Why? One obvious reason is that the training of teachers, particularly at the secondary level, requires post-secondary institutions to train them. That is one career path. Developing economies need professionals in many fields: nurses and doctors in the health sector; accountants, engineers, IT experts and trained managers in the business and public sectors.
Since liberation, Bangladesh has invested in public universities but, as all neutral observers have noted, the public universities face many severe problems. While the number of private universities has risen, there are still too few compared to other Asian and South Asian countries; we know Dhaka University played the most important role in the creation of the Bengali Muslim middle class in East Bengal, who played the decisive role in the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and Bangladesh in 1971. Dhaka University had its hey days in the 1930s and 1940s, till the Partition of 1947, which led to the mass emigration of qualified Hindu professors to India, who once had brought fame and glory to the institution. One may mention renowned physicist Satyen Bose (who jointly published path breaking research works with Einstein), and famous historian R.C. Majumdar, among many other celebrated professors of Dhaka University in this regard. The overnight replacement of the more qualified Hindu professors by the relatively less qualified Muslim Bengali teachers after the Partition signaled the beginning of the irreversible decline in the standard of education and reputation of Dhaka University.
However, the worst was yet to come. Dhaka University and the other universities, colleges, schools and the overall education system in Bangladesh got a rude shock, paradoxically after the independence of Bangladesh. The country came into being with lots of promises but due to factional conflicts, waste of time and energy on futile projects-the overnight replacement of English by Bengali as the medium of instruction at college-level, for example-wrought havoc in every sphere of society, including higher education. Although standard books and journals in Bengali on any discipline-other than Bengali language and literature-are simply inadequate, and non-existing for certain disciplines, the proponents of hasty replacement of English as the medium of instruction did not weigh the pros and cons of this drastic decision. The rest is history.
Last but not least, besides lacking qualified faculty, excellent library and lab-facilities, good students and proper patronage and support from the public and private sectors, Dhaka University was also infested with extremely fractious and partisan teacher politics (politics not merit determine teachers' selection, tenure and promotion). Again, most faculty members at Dhaka University don't have Ph.D.s, and good publications; while their counterparts at any decent university in the West-definitely Oxford-are well-published and not without Ph.D. degrees-with exceptions in certain disciplines, like law, medicine and accountancy.
In sum, we cannot understand the state of decay and degeneration of Dhaka University in isolation. While de-emphasising of English is an important factor behind the decline of higher education in Bangladesh, nevertheless, this is not the sole factor. Dhaka University cannot remain insulated from the prevalent political chaos, economic mismanagement and social disorder in the country indefinitely. Then again, there is no point glorifying it as the "Oxford of the East." Myths can neither replenish the loss, nor hide the reality.
We have much work to do in all the one hundred or so of our universities. The University Grant Commission and the chancellor of the universities have a special responsibility to see that our universities work to attain such high standards that we can be proud of them in our region.
Many alumni from universities in Bangladesh have given the world new ideas. Of them are the concept of microcredit, and the ideas of social business and of oral saline. Researchers who graduated from our technical universities have developed several excellent strains of high yielding rice. Some of them have sequenced the genome of jute. What keeps us from inventing much more?
Dhaka University must focus on research. Much has been written and continues to be written in the national media about the deplorable state of research in our higher education system. Yet, in the midst of all this gloom there is sometimes a beacon of light that provides a glimmer of hope that all is perhaps not lost. In an effort to address diversified needs of academics, teachers, students and researchers who must collaborate and share information, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is implementing the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN) under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) with funding support from the World Bank. It is hoped that Dhaka University along with all public universities will be under the network.
The project is a high speed data communication network that will bridge education and research institutions in both public and private sectors. Guaranteed and dedicated high speed internet connectivity that aims to connect all institutions involved in research including universities, research organisations, laboratories, healthcare and agricultural institutions. Having such a platform in place will help both academics and students alike to take advantage of real-time computing and sharing of information across the country. Since, the hardware part of the system will be based on optical fibre; we are effectively looking at a countrywide network. The application of Research and Education (R&E) is diversified and could revolutionise the way we share information. We are potentially looking at true "online" collaboration on research where scientists, researchers or students located in different parts of the country share valuable information on the net (see map). With databases and research work made available online, an agriculture extension officer in Rangpur can share his field data with the head office in Dhaka as and when a situation is developing; a faculty member in Chittagong University can share his research findings with his colleagues in Dhaka over video conference.
As we know, since Dhaka University has done away with the three-year honours programme; it is no longer a residential university (it was not fully residential ever); the tutorial system of instruction is almost practically dead; and last but not least, house tutors at this university are simply administrators to assist the hall administration (they don't formally teach the students), we have no reasons to believe in the myth any more that Dhaka University was/is ever the "Oxford of the East." Its identity and image can't be deplorable.
(Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed; Writer, Columnist & Researcher)

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