Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman—an eminent academic, economist and policy maker of the country is an alumnus of Dhaka University's Economics department. On the occasion of DU's 100th year celebration, The Business Standard talked with him and discussed the university's lost glory and politicisation as well as about its pursuit of academic excellence.
TBS: How has DU changed from the time you were a student to what it is now?
HZR: I am not directly involved with DU now as I am not a faculty nor am I a syndicate member. But as an alumnus and as an outsider, I can tell you that the main change that I have witnessed is political.
The proliferation of party politics is omnipresent in DU now. If we take a look at the students, teachers or the people in the administration, we will see that the presence of party politics is very evident. Dhaka University has always been politically active but the scenario that we witness now is pretty different.
In earlier times, the students of DU used to play their parts in various anti-establishment movements. The proud history of Dhaka University's various political movements is intertwined with the history of creating movements against oppressors, be it the 60's, 70's or the 90's. But now most of the student bodies are dancing in tune with the ruling party.
One-party politics in DU is an unfortunate reality now. Even two decades ago, we used to see people with different political beliefs and views having a peaceful co-existence. They used to show respect and tolerance to each other and paved ways for a democratic practice in the University. But that is all but lost now.
Do you think this over-politicisation has downgraded the environment of academic pursuits?
For those who have had the good fortune of passing through the portals of this famous university, the happy nostalgia is marred by the vision of an ominous future that the current state of students' politics portrays.
You have to understand that a university is a place for pursuing academic excellence. Yes, as a student of the country's premier university, you can't stay insulated from the national agenda or politics but over politicisation has created impediments in nurturing talent.
Having said that, I have to admit that the university still produces a number of meritorious students. At the core, the students of any university have to rely upon themselves for academic excellence. This is more so evident in DU. Now, you will see a lot of excellent students coming out from DU but the university doesn't play that big a role in producing those students. So, even if the university doesn't help in honing these talents, they themselves are working hard to pave their own path of success. This was also true in our time.
Has Dhaka University ever tried to regulate the politics of students and teachers?
When we were students, the Dhaka University Ordinance 1973 was passed. It was passed to bring this institution under some sort of democratic and legal structure. Originally it was thought that such ordinance would help create a democratic environment in conducting university elections, selecting Vice-Chancellors and syndicate members and other important administrative and academic positions. The Ordinance was also seen as a guideline for student bodies and their respective elections.
But what we have seen in the last four decades or so, is that the original essence of the ordinance has not been followed. As a university, the core of its ordinance was to make sure that it nurtures an appropriate environment for the practice of knowledge. But that is not the case. We have witnessed worsening in the practice of knowledge while at the same time, have seen the rise of holding on to unruly political practices.
The result is pretty evident as we have seen Dhaka University ranks very poorly in various World University rankings. In economics, there is a theory called Gresham's Law. It states "Bad money drives out the good money." Analogically, it means, if a system allows something bad to grow, then eventually it will drive out the good from the system. Dhaka University is suffering from this syndrome.
Do you witness any change in the mindset of the DU graduates? Especially in the case of pursuing careers?
Most of the students of the universities including DU are becoming obsessed with the administrative jobs of the government. They now start studying for the BCS exams from their university years. This is because the incentives of government service have increased manifold in the last few decades. In our time, that was not the case. We used to aim for academic excellence and try to excel in our respective subjects.
How do you view the university's shift towards commercialisation in recent years, exemplified by the numerous evening courses offered by different departments?
There are lots of departments in DU now. Yes, the number of academic disciplines has increased but the question remains whether their curricula are updated with the latest information or not.
You have to understand that Dhaka University is not trying to be self-sustainable. Still now the largest portion of the grants of the University Grants Commission goes to Dhaka University. They are opening these evening courses or short skills programs because there is demand. I don't see any problem there. But there could be problems if the teachers concentrate more on evening courses because there are incentives there. They should first concentrate on their regular academic activities.
As this is the time of the fourth industrial revolution, do you think DU is providing the right sort of education and preparing students adequately for the new job market?
I don't think the students are equipped with the latest or advanced knowledge in Dhaka University because if that was the case, we wouldn't have to witness a paradox in the job market. Most of the employers in the competitive private sector are saying that they are not getting DU graduates with appropriate skills suitable for the job sector.
A large chunk of people from the surrounding countries of Bangladesh are now capturing lucrative positions in the private sector. This is happening because the employers and the entrepreneurs are not getting people with the right skill sets.