TBS: In recent years, Dhaka University has often taken flak for excess politicisation of its teaching and student bodies. And yet, the university is also acclaimed for its pivotal role in the great political upheavals of this country. How do you distinguish between the two and what in your view is a healthy political role a university can play?
Dr. Fakrul Alam: A healthy political role can be played by the university once again only if a duly elected Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU) student body is given a lot of space to work and if the people at the helms of power can listen to the demands of students elected thus and work together with them to solve student problems.
The DU order of 1973, which granted institutional autonomy to the university, and DUCSU, was intended to serve as a medium for democratic activities and to ensure a democratic university atmosphere within the institution. That mechanism has been affected negatively over the decades. Of course, the Order needs to be amended in some ways as well. For this, there must be some discussion among relevant bodies.
Let me point out here that I started teaching at this university in 1975, and I immediately saw the benefits of the autonomy act in terms of teaching and student roles. Let me say also that over the years, there have been very few DUCSU elections, and the provisions of the act granting us autonomy have every now and then been violated.
In its 100 years, was there ever a period when Dhaka University played a strong role in producing international standard academic research?
I would say that Dhaka University began well and the standard has continued to be fairly high thus far. If you look at the history of Dhaka University, you will notice that every few years it produces at least a few teachers of international caliber. Even today, there are very good scholars who are coming out from this University and publishing in the best journals and university presses and taking part in state of the art research. In our English Department, for example, at least a few colleagues have published internationally in recent decades. I am confident that this is the case in quite a few other departments.
Of course, I believe that our faculty members could do better in terms of publishing work internationally. With the knowledge that many of our colleagues possess, I see no reason why they shouldn't be able to perform optimally. No doubt a committee should be set up immediately to find out why very qualified teachers are underperforming.
As the Bangladesh economy grows impressively and we are heading towards becoming a middle income country do you feel that Dhaka University is providing the right sort of education and preparing students adequately for the new job market?
Certainly, many Dhaka University students are still in high demand. Consider IBA graduates. They are doing exceptionally well both in our country and abroad. Many students from the English and Economics are also doing well. Students from various departments of the biosciences, the applied sciences and the pharmacy faculties are also working in many biotech, pharmaceutical and computer-related industries. So, there are quite a lot of success stories as far as employment goes.
I firmly believe that most of our students are fully capable of contributing significantly to the betterment of our country even after it advances to the next level. However, over the last three decades the University over-expanded; far too many new departments were opened. I am not saying new departments should not be opened. I think part of the job of a university is to open new departments in new fields of studies that are opening up and to evolve with time. However, such expansion should be done keeping in mind the student-faculty ratio, the job market and the infrastructural capacity of the institution, which includes the number of seats, available rooms, library and digital facilities, and so on.
When we talk about Dhaka University, we're talking about the best university in our country right now in terms of rankings. If we want to keep and even improve our position, we must prioritize quality. Limiting student intake is another way to ensure quality because each department will be able to take better care of their students then, resulting in more skilled graduates who could have made greater contributions to the growth of our country.
In the near future do you think private universities will replace Dhaka University as the premier academic institution in the country or has that already happened?
Well I don't think you can compare Dhaka University with even the best private universities in our country. Dhaka University has made and continues to make far more significant contributions to our country than they have in every way. I don't see how a private university can surpass or even come close to overtaking Dhaka University. It simply offers a lot more in terms of departments, institutes, and centers.
Having said that, it is also important to mention that some of the private universities are also doing a good job in producing skilled graduates. I know because I was Pro V.C. of one of them recently. I am confident that, together with our students, they will be able to steer the country toward a brighter future.
How do you view the university's shift towards commercialisation in recent years, exemplified by the numerous evening courses offered by different departments?
Even the English Department wanted to offer evening courses but our students didn't allow us to do so. But let's remember that evening courses provide many people with the education they need to excel in their careers. They are less expensive in public than in private universities.
Also, there is nothing wrong with a teacher taking a few extra courses in the evening. But no doubt there has been an over-expansion of evening courses. This should have been monitored and restricted.
Do you think Dhaka University should continue to be heavily subsidised by the government or should the authorities shift towards generating more of its own income such as by raising tuition fees for students?
Dhaka University's most significant contribution in the last 50 years or so has been to accept students who cannot afford to pay even a fraction of the tuition fees charged by private universities. Dhaka University and other public universities are doing fantastic work in educating people who would not have been able to study in the university otherwise, become self-reliant and contribute to the country's upliftment.
Many of these students go on to have successful careers and hold high-level positions. The entire family then becomes solvent and family members live better lives. People who criticise Dhaka University most often ignore this aspect.
However, I believe that tuition fees should be raised slowly over time and marginally. But what I have seen from my experience of teaching for 45 years or so is that every time the tuition fee is raised, the move tends to attract the wrath of students. The administration often has to withdraw from its decision. So, this has to be handled with utmost care.
To sum up, I'd like to say that people have high expectations of Dhaka University, and rightly so. Dhaka University has always striven to provide the best possible service to the country. It has played an important role in key junctures of the country's history but it must continue to do so and not compromise as far as quality is concerned. Quality over quantity for me!
Nevertheless, we cannot simply dwell on the past. We have come a long way in 100 years, but much more needs to be done if we are to live up to our reputation as "the Oxford of the East." We must evaluate ourselves on a regular basis and make changes as needed in order to stay on top and be a much better university in the future than we are today.
If they are given the right environment and infrastructure, I believe our faculty members can take Dhaka University to a much more respectable position in world rankings in the future.