The missing ‘quality’ in our universities

Faheem Hasan Shahed
Published : 14 Feb 2016, 06:00 AM
Updated : 14 Feb 2016, 06:00 AM

Be it a tête-à-tête at a tea-table or a serious round table among intellectuals, any discussion on our higher education gets transformed into an inexplicable debate on public versus private universities. In most cases, it is the customary perception that steals the show: public universities symbolizing 'quality' with 'standard education and environment' while private universities characterizing 'lack of quality' with 'substandard teaching-learning'. This over-generalized assessment concerning the Brahmin stature of public universities versus the Dalit status of private universities leaves little room for the minority truth-seeking citizens to deeply probe the actual scenario of our tertiary education.

Take the issue of 'quality'. In fact, the most widely used jargon 'quality assurance' is a direct upshot of this issue. In denotative terms, quality is connected to the basic infrastructural facilities like having a proper campus with adequate academic and administrative units, scholarly teachers with genuine qualifications, classrooms, library and research facilities etc. Without these, a university should not exist. However, the concern lies elsewhere. Our over-generalized perception happily deems these as the sole ingredients of quality assurance, overlooking the ideology of knowledge dissemination. Knowledge epitomizes value education that provokes accurate scruples and humane ambience within students. But the problem is, in the guise of imparting 'state-of-the-art education' (another clichéd catchphrase), many teachers hardly nourish creativity in their classrooms. I know several academics who love relying only on laptops, projectors and sound systems for lecturing. Delivering a single sentence outside powerpoint slides is a needless affair to them, and a teacher who tries to rely more on her/his instantaneous wisdom and creativity rather than technology is simply outmoded in their eyes!

So let me offer my views on academic quality. In case of science, business and technology courses, 'quality' is quite an objective and rigid issue where ensuring the quantity of classes, delivering formatted lectures aided by high-tech facilities, maintaining tenacious discipline in all academic formalities, displaying professionalism in attitude and body language by both students and teachers etc. are essential components. It obviously makes sense. Science courses are supposed to create analytical and methodological professionals. BBA classrooms must teach students to become fast-paced executives in competitive settings. Engineering courses should make students smart, skilled engineers who yield quick solutions.

But when it comes to the social sciences and humanities, the 'quality' issue should be subjective and flexible. For example, a professor of Economics, Sociology or Literature may not be driven merely by the urgency to reach her/his class by the bell, finish calling attendance and deliver a robotic lecture according to a fixed module.

Her/his lecture items may not be necessarily governed by quantity or technological facilities. S/he may not be harsh on a student who has arrived twenty-two minutes late. Yet that professor can impart the most intense knowledge on the pupils and generate the finest creativity out of them. And also, s/he can successfully complete the syllabus before exams. I fondly recall several of my teachers doing so, and I can safely say that they had normally 'assured' the desired 'quality' in a small person like me; neither they nor I needed any additional 'quality assurance'!

Much as it may sound queer, today's teachers of both public and private universities are having a tough time in ensuring 'quality' in their classrooms. This is simply because the concept of quality control has lost its diverse perspectives; the same yardstick is being applied for all occasions. No wonder impassive consumerism has successfully made its overriding presence felt in our higher education sector. Thanks to it, education is now an adulterated commodity in both public and private universities.

Parents' only dream is to buy it for their children. Students therefore enter the universities to earn a degree glittering with 'A's and 'A+'s, the way they had earned Golden GPAs in their PSC-JSC-SSC-HSC exams. It is not at all surprising that a sizable number of undergraduate students of public and private universities do not read even a Bangla newspaper. It is also not shocking that a final semester undergraduate student may hurl at you a reluctant "Really!" upon hearing that Satyajit Ray wrote Feluda novels (not to mention an innocent query by some of them: 'By the way, who is this Satyajit Ray?').

A commodity for the community?

Well, none of us dislike markets or hate consumerism. None of us are against the interconnectivity of universities and various stakeholders. But we need to figure out the answer to this query: why did we have to turn our higher education into a commodity in the name of creating efficient workforce for our nation?

Nobody would deny that in this age of rapidly growing global economic trends, our national success is correlated to the percentage and quality of our professional workforce produced by tertiary education. Various competence and skills imparted through tertiary education can help our graduates tackle the demands of changing times. And thus, quality assurance is a crucial factor for ensuring educational relevance.

The fundamental point is, ensuring educational relevance has to be done through knowledge-based skill development. The University Grants Commission of Bangladesh in its 41st Annual Report (2014) projected the need for developing students' communicative competence in English and ICT vis-à-vis the knowledge of their respective subject matters. Please watch out the phrase 'knowledge in respective subject matters' which is unavoidably the key. I recall Iresh Zaker, a talented actor, writing about his experience in a round table two years back where a celebrated educationist spoke against the 'rubbish things' that are taught in schools, and as an example, he talked about his 'compulsion to study Shakespeare' in his school which he had found of 'zero value' in his life! Iresh did not hide his bewilderment at watching how the crème de la crème present on that occasion nodded their heads in agreement.

As a reader, I had wished someone explained to those round table personalities how Humanities acts as a crucial tool of value education which actually makes someone an ethical techno-savvy professional.

Coming back to the issue of knowledge, when we teach a student the techniques of public speaking, do we skip the content or subject matter of speaking? Without becoming knowledgeable on a topic, how is a student expected to talk efficiently? Only through relying on some posh-sounding superficial dialogues and smart gesture and postures? Unfortunately, consumerism has brought things on the verge of superficiality. Thus has developed the trend of commercialism among our student community: no need to offer salam or namaskar to teachers without any interest or reason; no need to feel attached to the department or to be involved with departmental events.

Watching the aftermath of such superficiality and commercialism in society, sensible citizens might wonder, what then is the role of human consciousness? In his book 'Ignited Minds', Dr. A P J Abul Kalam observed that we have lost sight of ethical values in our pursuit of prosperity and power. Nothing can be truer than this if we look at our total education system. Guardians have been going to any extent by torturing their kids with private tutors, coaching centers, mock exams, restriction on outdoor games, and a ruthless never-try-to-sleep-till-you-memorize policy. I have not found guardians who want their children to become knowledgeable and creative or who want schools to place emphasis on good, neat handwriting. They fume in anger when their kids get an A instead of an A-plus.

A prominent school in Dhaka denied promotion to more than 40 students from class eight to nine just because they had not gotten GPA 5 in JSC exam this year (though they got As and A minuses). Another reputed school meted out weird treatment to students who failed to get GPA 5 in their PSC exam last year. These tender-aged students were forced to visit every classroom holding their ears and uttering loudly, 'I have not gotten GPA 5!' Unable to bear this public humiliation, they became traumatized and stopped going to school.

But amazingly, the guardians in both these cases kept silent. What could be the reason that they had accepted these and not gone for any actions against such unlawful behavior? Lack of consciousness? Lack of conscience? Who knows, probably both. Consumerist superficiality has played a quality game!

The end result? Universities are flooded with GPA 5 students who cannot produce a single paragraph without errors in tense, preposition, articles and spelling. Even more alarmingly, most of them think they have not committed any mistakes, rather it is the teachers who are being unjust toward them.

Going beyond the public-private debate

I would like to highlight some crucial observations from UGC's Annual Report (2014) regarding the quality of education and environment in both public and private universities. UGC has criticized the public universities for being reluctant to generate their own income by increasing fees of students and rents of residential halls. The consequent lack of necessary funds has hampered the desired academic and infrastructural progress. Scarcity of quality research work by teachers has not allowed the universities to contribute effectively in our national life. Added to this are students' clashes on petty issues causing campus shutdown and teacher politics causing students' sufferings.

On the other hand, UGC described how a number of private universities are engaged in unethical practices like financial misappropriation regarding fees of admission-tuition-transcripts-testimonials, and salaries of teachers-employees. But at the same time, UGC has appreciated the the gradually improving standards of teaching-learning in a good number of private universities from which graduates are being successfully placed in government, private and international jobs. And it has also mentioned how private universities have saved minimum 250 crore taka in 2013 from going outside to different foreign universities.

I must mention the example of Kenya's second largest public university, Moi University's, 'Privately Sponsored Students Program' (PSSP). My friend Dr. Paul Kiprop Chepkuto, now the Deputy Vice Chancellor, was the former Director of this program. Launched in October 1998, this program has provided an opportunity for one million graduates every year from the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, who cannot get admitted in the public universities due to limited seats. Through PSSP, Kenyan students are able to pursue education at Moi University at affordable rates compared to the cost of similar studies abroad. The income from the program contributes to improvement of the academic environment of the university through research funds, construction of buildings, purchase of equipment, library books, vehicles and other areas of the university. Why cannot our public universities also run similar programs for national development should be a sensible question in our academic circle.

It is time the proponents of all futile debates on public versus private universities realized that all 117 universities of the country are in the same turbulent boat as regards 'quality' and 'quality assurance'. Both sides have to bounce back to the tranquil shore of knowledge-based, value-oriented efficiency. This can only be ensured by reformatting our educational universe right from school.

We are eagerly waiting for someone to puff the winds of change.

The writer is a researcher and Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at American International University-Bangladesh

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher