Dhaka University, global rankings ... and our embarrassment

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 19:59, May 26, 2019 | Updated : 20:14, May 26, 2019

Syed Badrul AhsanA teacher of Dhaka University, on a visit to London recently, sought to enlighten his British-Bangladeshi audience with a story he sought to pass off as fact. In defensive mode over the failure of Dhaka University to make it to the rankings related to Asian universities carried out by Times Higher Education, he explained away the embarrassment by suggesting that those behind the rankings left DU out because they were not paid the tens of thousands of pounds they had demanded of the university for the nation’s premier academic institution to find a place in the rankings.
It was an untruth which only added to our embarrassment at not seeing a single one of our universities among the scores of universities in the rankings list. And here is how Times Higher Education has responded to this Bangladeshi academic’s patently false observation:
“All universities in the ranking submit their institutional data for analysis to Times Higher Education entirely for free. If they meet the criteria and performance standards for inclusion, they will be included, for free ... taking part in the ranking is a free and voluntary process, with no charges.”
And here is the explanation from Times Higher Education on the failure of Dhaka University as well as other universities of the country to find a niche in the rankings:
“At the time the World University Rankings 2019 data collection was taking place (from January to March 2018) we invited the University of Dhaka to submit their data, as they had done the previous year. The data team chased them to submit data (via email and telephone) but they still didn’t submit. They therefore could not be included in any of the rankings for 2019.
Other Bangladeshi universities which did submit their data unfortunately did not meet THE’s minimum criteria for inclusion — in this case our requirement that universities publish at least 1,000 research papers over a five-year period, to ensure a valid assessment of research.”
That is the story, not the one related by our academic. It is one which should have left the authorities of Dhaka University absolutely red in the face. Our surprise comes in knowing that the Vice Chancellor has not said a word on the academic’s assertions, has not deemed it necessary to go for damage control.
As is known by now, the recent ranking of colleges and universities in Asia by Times Higher Education gave short shrift to Bangladesh’s higher educational institutions. Not a single university in Bangladesh has found a place among the 350 universities listed by the journal for the quality of their research and teaching.
File photo of the entrance of Dhaka University Central Library PHOTO/Mehedi HasanThat is an acute embarrassment for the country, when one notes that universities in China, Singapore, India and Pakistan have made it to the rankings by Times Higher Education. It is an embarrassment because for ages many among us have always referred to Dhaka University as the Oxford of the East, which it has never been given the historical standing of Oxford University and indeed the intellectual richness needed for any university to come at par with higher education in the West. That said, our embarrassment over the Times Higher Education rankings only deepens when we hear academics of the sort we have mentioned trying to explain away the shame on a visit abroad. His comments were outrageous and even he knows it. He was plainly and brazenly accusing the Times Higher Education authorities of soliciting monetary gratification, an idea patently crude and not reflective of the history of Times Higher Education and the reputation it enjoys. As a matter of fact, the Times Higher Education authorities brushed aside the allegations as ‘entirely false and defamatory.’
For us worried about the state of higher education in Bangladesh, the Times Higher Education issue should serve as a wake-up call. We will be deceiving ourselves if we are inclined to berate the individuals behind the rankings for not accommodating any Bangladeshi university in its rankings. An ostrich-like attitude will not do, for there are the facts which stare us in the face where conditions at our universities are concerned. There is first of all the glaring truth that research is now a process that does not measure up to the standards of a university in terms of global requirements. Universities are expected to be thriving centres of learning and teaching, but when teachers are unable to encourage and initiate such intellectual activities and when they themselves appear to be apathetic to research and fail to keep up with the newest trends and developments in education worldwide, our universities naturally fall behind. Besides, our public universities have in the last two decades turned into centres of political activity on the part of both teachers and students.
A large section of teachers remain glued to political partisanship through association with various panels, a fact which is demonstrated at elections to the teachers’ unions. Besides, the activities of student organizations have clearly slipped to being mirror images of the political parties they are linked to rather than being an articulation of basic student grievances at the universities. At a third level, as the eminent educationist and scholar Serajul Islam Choudhury notes, the frequency and facility with which teachers of public universities go over to the private universities to teach in return for appreciable monetary income is a damper on proper scholarship at places like Dhaka University. Finally, one cannot be happy about the manner in which the private universities have been functioning. Their student intake, in very large instances, has been more of a race for monetary gains than a need to promote scholarly ambitions in the young. Research emerging from the private universities has been minimal, but elitism has certainly been on proper display.
Nations lose touch with history, with the outside world, when education is ignored or not given the pre-eminence it deserves. Our inability to have our universities find places in the rankings of Times Higher Education should make us sit up. Pretending that our universities are doing a fine job would be suicidal.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad.

***The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and views of Bangla Tribune.