A Bangladeshi PhD student's take on our education system

Universities in Bangladesh and the West: Where lie the differences?

| Updated: February 08, 2023 18:51:31

Universities in Bangladesh and the West: Where lie the differences?

Every year, we, the students, teachers, and alumni of different universities, along with the aware portion of the population across the country, engage ourselves in discussions and arguments through social and mainstream media regarding the higher education system in the country because of the announcement of major world university ranking providers—from the QS ranking, the Times Higher Education or the US news. 

The discussion, understandably, revolves around our lack of progress and things to be done. The focus is usually on the public universities struggling to keep pace with academic best practices and modernisation. 

However, it also should be acknowledged that country contexts differ; in some cases, the western academic culture may not always be universally applicable. 

Nevertheless, the global education system has conceded to such quantifiable measures. Also, building a robust learning environment and creating a research-friendly domain are critical steps applicable to all the universities in the world. Therefore, on standard and apposite grounds, it is vital to identify the differences with globally top institutions and design the policies so that we can consistently improve. 

Since this writer is experiencing the western education system as a graduate student in the United States, he tried to gather his experiences and qualitative perspectives from several Bangladesh-trained students studying now in different graduate schools in the West. 

It was, admittedly, not a systematic and methodical survey, per se, but it may give the readers an idea of where the Bangladeshi higher education system has room to improve. 

First, let's start with something positive. While comparing the 'good' academic teachers (i.e., who the students liked through taking a course) in the states with the good ones in the country, students from historically top departments in several top schools in Bangladesh agreed on the fact that the good teachers are pretty much comparable in both parts. 

There can be some reasons behind this: good teachers from top departments in Bangladesh are more likely to have a PhDs from a good school and more likely to have ongoing research activities. Another point lies in the passion for teaching, a key characteristic of being a good teacher. Building a compassionate teaching philosophy does not necessarily require training from the West. 

Historically, the Indian subcontinent has a long history of compassionate teaching (well, there are pieces of evidence of having quite the opposite as well), so the practice of understanding the student's needs and teaching them comprehensibly can be inherited from the teachers of the teachers. The problem is that we have not been able to systematically institutionalise the practice of good teaching so that young teachers can learn and continue.

When comparing the not-so-good experiences, we can see the differences in systems between western and Bangladeshi institutions. At this point, it is understandable that not all can excel in any profession. 

However, the ecosystem in the universities should be functional in a way that can address this. The institution has a responsibility to keep every teacher accountable. 

There are many complaints regarding teachers not preparing syllabi and lectures properly. The teachers should prepare syllabi, deliver lectures on time, and design a grading system that is encouraging (and not demotivating) for the students. 

While talking about the syllabi, we should talk about the entire course plan, with an opportunity for the students who usually pay less attention to studies to improve. 

It can be done through creative homework, participatory class discussion, and activities where all students feel engaged. When the class size is large, the logistical investments for instruction should sync. 

Second, the training required before becoming a university teacher does not seem to be sufficient. Public universities in Bangladesh recruit teachers with a post-grad degree (preferably from their own institutions if the departments or universities are new in the academic market). 

The practice is more advanced in the West—they only recruit teachers with a PhD degree. In the local context of Bangladesh, this may not be an achievable criterion for all departments, but proper training is inescapable. 

Along with having training in traditional academic pedagogy, being compassionate and empathetic towards students is highly necessary, and modules are available to understand that. Not all teachers can be eloquent speakers, but delivering and managing lectures and exams in a student-friendly manner is necessary. Teachers should know that they may have a long-lasting effect on students' minds and impact their lives. 

Then comes the research activities, albeit with some critical observations. Many educationists have been advocating for increasing the university budget for research for so long. Currently, this mostly comes from the university budgets through the government's yearly endowment. 

Instead of building countless universities across the country without ensuring quality, the endowment can be easily increased, having a focus on improving the research facilities in a few major universities. 

Moreover, while it is imperative to increase government funds, relying on government funds alone for research will not suffice. It is time to create an environment where private organisations and individuals regularly donate large funds for research activities. 

Wealthy individuals in the country already donate in different sectors, so encouraging them by creating incentives from the universities and institutions is not impossible.

Fourth, formal and incentive-based processes and institutional arrangements should exist where university professors and university-based research centres apply for competitive international research funds. Many experienced professors already do this through private channels. 

Across the globe, winning international research grants on behalf of universities is prestigious, and it motivates young teachers and students to pursue research as a career. Few universities in Bangladesh have that practice to some extent. Replicating or updating the mechanism should not be difficult. 

Fifth, there should be an acknowledgement in the promotion process when a teacher publishes in a good journal or acquires large research grants—for example, publishing in Nature Portfolio journals and university/faculty-produced local journals are not the same. 

Good universities and research institutions worldwide follow standard journal ranking systems such as the ABDC journal list, where quality publications that take significant effort to publish get rewarded the most. 

Weighing all the journals in the same manner, does not encourage a good research environment; it only pushes people to publish for the sake of promotion, not to produce good research. University policies should be designed in a way so that it can recognise the investments in rigorous academic training—having a PhD training should be rewarded more. 

Sixth, teaching in a university should be weighed differently in the academic recruitment rules—formal and informal. Comparing the level of power and grades with the administrators has been doing nothing but harm. Across the universities, there is a tendency among teachers to become politically influential in their sphere and beyond. 

High ambitions are okay, but if that negatively impacts the university environment, that practice is questionable. Also, getting appointed and promoted in university management require favourable political history. 

Research excellence has become so secondary that some teachers prefer doing politics in their available time instead of doing research. This culture impacts the teachers who are not into this culture—they are losing their interest in this profession. 

Thus, a dangerous trend has followed: some teachers are switching to administrative professions even after having a stellar academic profile. 

Also, those with good training from abroad are not planning to return to Bangladesh because of the rise of unpleasant political activities, declining scope of doing good academic research, and even less scope of getting rewarded for it. 

When it is a time to have talented, experienced, and passionate teachers and researchers around to train the new and young ones, this situation may create a knowledge void in public universities in the near future.

The writer is a PhD Student of Applied Economics at Michigan State University, USA. 

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