The governing body of a public university once again came to the news when the authority figures at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) failed miserably to address the demands of students over the quality of food.
The situation was under control until the authority of SUST decided to apply police force against protesters. One rash decision escalated a simple demand into a full-blown conflict.
The crisis further deepened when derogatory comments from the Vice-Chancellor of SUST about the female students of Jahangirnagar University (JU) went viral on social media. Students went on a hunger strike, which finally ended after 163 hours at the request of Dr Muhammad Zafar Iqbal.
If it were an isolated case and temporary unrest, the nation would not be so concerned. Over the past half-decade, our country has witnessed disturbing news regarding the corruption, inefficiency, and impropriety of the members of authorities, especially the VCs, of different public universities on an unprecedented scale.
Some were on the front pages of newspapers for their direct involvement in academic, administrative, financial irregularities, nepotism, and admission trade.
As you know, our teachers and students always played a historical role in every national crisis. The University of Dhaka was once known as 'the Oxford of the East'.
However, after 50 years of our independence, it is a matter of great concern that the mediocre universities of our neighbouring countries have outperformed almost all the top public universities of our country, in every area of teaching and research.
The University of Dhaka, which was in the 601 plus bracket according to Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Ranking in 2012, slipped to the 701 plus range in 2014 and further below in the 800- 1000 range in 2020.
Our two top universities - the University of Dhaka (DU) and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)- are placed in the 801-1000 range while 26 Asian universities ranked in the top 100, and eight Indian and three Pakistani institutes have made it to the top 500 in the latest QS ranking.
The reasons behind our poor performance in higher education are manifold. However, some vital issues include political influence, lack of research funding and nepotism in teacher recruitment. In recent times, the spotlight is on the appointment of VCs and their roles in leading the academic and administrative departments of the universities.
The appointment and the role of the VCs became the topic of discussion again on social media and in public forums when 35 VCs of public universities expressed their solidarity with SUST VC by committing to resign if the SUST VC was to be removed.
To ordinary people, the gesture mirrored the operation of any political party rather than academic personnel. In the context of our country, the ruling party usually appoints vice-chancellors, as well as, the top officials of public universities on political considerations, to maintain control on the campuses.
When the VCs prioritise personal interests, groups and political parties over teaching and learning, the academic environment on campus suffers. Consequently, our poorly functioning universities are lagging behind the universities of our neighbouring countries. What can we do to solve this problem?
In addition to executing a standard guideline for appointing vice-chancellors, we must bring some radical changes to the existing environment on the campuses.
We must begin by working with the concept of student politics in our society. When a student doesn't attend classes, never raises his voice against irregularities, but maintains a strong tie with the ruling party and implements the party's agenda on the university campus, should we level him as a 'student leader'?
We must clear our stance on this topic that carrying illegal arms, terrorising the general students and fostering violence in 'guest rooms' do not represent student politics. Rather, these are acts of criminal offences.
On the other hand, when teachers do not attend their regular classes and conduct research, never raise their voice for the welfare of the teachers and students but remain busy with grouping and supporting political parties, can we consider them leaders?
In our public universities, it seems like teachers are playing the role of political leaders and often engaging in conflicts with colleagues and even with students over issues of power and dominance. Unless we can get them back to the classrooms and engage them with research work, can we expect anything better from them?
Then, we must support research activities in the universities with the necessary funds. Many of our researchers are conducting cutting edge research in different renowned American and European universities, but we cannot afford them here because of the lack of funds.
So, our universities must find ways to work in collaboration with our industries. Following the model of top research universities, our universities should develop mechanisms to manage funds from local and international corporations, and, in return, help the businesses to grow with research findings.
Moreover, we must consider raising teachers' remuneration and other facilities. If the teachers feel less appreciated, more stressed, and do multiple side jobs in the evenings and on weekends to lead a decent life in society, how do we expect the best and most qualified teachers and quality education?
Above all, we must ensure the abolition of nepotism from our universities. Various studies have revealed that political involvements influenced the recruitment of teachers rather than academic qualifications.
Recruitments seek to increase colour based vote-bank for the teachers' groups. When teachers are appointed politically and engage in the grouping for personal benefit, can we expect quality education from them?
Universities play significant roles in shaping the conscience of a society. They create scholars, transfer knowledge, develop skills and contribute to economic growth. No matter how much we take pride in our current economic growth, we will not be able to sustain it in the long run without the support of our universities.
Therefore, we must take prompt actions to develop our universities to support our longing for becoming a developed country by 2041.
Md Kawsar Uddin is an assistant professor of English at the International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.