N A T I O N A L – E D U C A T I O N
Nawal Naz Tareque
In a popular Facebook group focused on undergraduate admissions abroad, I had posted a link to popular research opportunities in the US for high school students. The incentive was simple: research opportunities in a country like ours is highly lucrative for school students and would shine bright in the list of extracurricular activities.
Until I realised: research opportunities in our country are lucrative for anyone.
That’s an alarming thought for someone whose primary metric in finding universities was seeing the prospects of research. Bangladesh has never been a country that could boast its academic environment despite the egotistical behaviour from many of our country’s top STEM-based universities. To understand how we got here, let’s take a look at the past.
Trickling funds: Getting a tiny slice
The table below is from a research paper published in 2011. It describes how public universities in Bangladesh are funded apart from admission and semester fees.
A very obvious pattern emerges wherein we see universities receiving an exceedingly low percentage of funds from the national budget. However, it gets far worse. In the year 2001-2002, the total amount of money spent on research, out of a whopping 3,773 million taka, was only 29 million taka. That is barely 0.77% of funds allocated for research purposes.
It’s easy to point out the fact that this data is over 20 years old. That is before the recent trends are highlighted again.
The recent report published by the University Grants Commission, the most important regulatory body of university education in our country, observes that in 2019, the average amount spent on research by a typical Bangladeshi university is Tk1.22 crore or less than 1% of the average total expenditure.
So it begs the question: why is it that the situation here has yet to improve?
The plight of the public: Lack of guidance, resources, and motivation
On a field trip to Dhaka University, I remember visiting the Physics lab almost 7 years ago. Most of the equipments looked untouched, dust-caked over many of the old textbooks and manuscripts lying around. I expected lab technicians to be around but saw no such person. Instead, the people in charge proudly blew away the dust from various objects, gleeful that they got to use these toys and give us a demonstration of what they are supposed to do.
Without the proper tools and technology, it will be difficult to conduct any form of research as it will be impossible to create ideal conditions for research.
It’s no secret that professors, lecturers, and even associate professors receive promotions or even get hired based on their political affiliations and endorsements instead of merit. The result is a deplorable lack of academic supervisors with adequate wisdom to guide fellow undergraduate or masters student. The pay scale of university professors is also not up to levels received abroad, forcing many of them to take extra part-time job offers in private universities, consultancy firms, or coaching centres geared towards preparing prospective university students. This becomes a stressful job for most passionate advisors and supervisors, who subsequently neither have the time nor the energy to devote to any original research or help others do the same.
In Bangladesh, most university students still cannot access published journals and have to use pirated websites such as Sci-Hub to access files in Jstor. An assistant professor at the University of Dhaka lamented, “The University of Dhaka is still unable to offer relevant information resources, especially online journals and e-books, to faculty members and students; we are also unable to offer a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to our users, and the university library cannot digitise its collection and convert into a ‘Digital Library’. The majority of public universities are in the same position. This includes Rajshahi University Library, which, despite having a huge collection of research worthy materials, is unable to digitise.”
However, financial constraints and incompetent advisors aren’t the only part of the problem. A culture of rote learning, drilled deep into most students by the onslaught known as SSC and HSC, makes it harder for creative growth to spur within people. Thus, as they grow into adults, that seed of innovation and creativity remains dormant. A direct consequence is people’s tendency to copy material or simply rephrase it to have the same meaning as the original document. This dishonesty means most students engage in plagiarising published work within their papers and have no interest in pursuing original research with their own hypothesis. Teachers at Jagannath University and Dhaka University have been sacked once they were caught plagiarising. It’s no surprise, however, that they became involved in the same behaviour they preached against: if professors failed to produce a certain number of research papers every year, they would lose a shot at promotions.
All these have contributed to Bangladesh being ranked 112th out of 138 countries in the Global Knowledge Index in 2020, and why we managed to secure only one patent whereas India bagged 276 patents.
Private universities: Barriers despite incentives
The case of private universities is very interesting. For starters, private universities already invest significantly more in research than public universities. The top 10 private universities invested Tk82 crore on research in 2019, while the top 7 public universities spent Tk32 crore. However, why is there still a lack of high-quality research despite the exorbitant amounts paid to these universities?
For one, most of the revenue is spent on renovating and constructing new buildings, improving the campus, etc. While it is commendable that universities are spending so much to foster a thriving university experience, I suspect it has less to do with that and more to do with establishing a status symbol within the elite class of our society.
Secondly, there are legal restrictions that force them to carry out ineffective research. Most biological materials cannot be purchased as they are prohibited by law. Private universities are also barred from creating PhD programmes by the UGC, blocking a pool of enthusiastic candidates from other countries to conduct research and bringing in foreign investment.
Solutions for the future
Public universities must have a greater portion of funds from the national budget to conduct better research by investing in better equipment and technology. Private universities must be allowed to start PhD programme of their own, so that their monetary incentive pushes them to bring in the latest technology needed for scientific innovation. As part of creating a digital Bangladesh, the government should take steps to ensure students have a workable pool of resources they can tap into to have a sense of what good research papers look like without having to violate piracy laws.
Bangladesh has a long way to go before it can nurture a flourishing academic environment for its meritorious children. But it has to start somewhere. What better place to start than the grounds of a university?
Nawal Naz Tareque is a depressed 20-year-old hoping to indoctrinate people into an Arctic Monkeys cult. When she’s not busy rewatching episodes of Bojack Horseman, she scribbles down her thoughts on life and more. You can rage against patriarchy with her by mailing her at [email protected].