Lately, the world university ranking systems, especially promoted by the private universities for attracting prospective students in Bangladesh, have brought attention to the state of research in local universities. The quality of higher education in the country is also under the microscope. Historically, most of our universities were focused on offering quality undergraduate degrees. Only few of them had reasonably strong graduate programmes. Most of the newer universities struggle to start graduate studies and end up having a second-tier programme to justify calling themselves a university instead of a college. So, the culture of research never really took off.
Evaluating faculty members for review, promotion and tenure is a challenging job that has evolved with time. In the early eighties, effective teaching was considered the principal task of a faculty member. Now, it is necessary but not sufficient. More emphasis is given on strong research and publication over excellence in teaching and services. The Times Higher Education ranking started in 2004 and The QS University Ranking started in 2011. It takes a long time (maybe 10-12 years) and coordinated, sustained efforts from all stakeholders to develop a healthy and active research culture.
To create new knowledge, develop new products and services, or improve the old ones for human benefit requires research. The onus of doing research is not only on the universities. In 2016, the global industry spent 15 percent of its revenue on Research and Development (R&D). Both academia and industry need to cooperate and collaborate closely for the advancement of the civilisation. The Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine development is an example of such cooperation that led to a great success.
In Bangladesh, no one talks about professional or industry research because it almost does not exist. There are a few private think tanks, non-profits and NGOs that are doing research on socio-economic issues, and a few government agencies like BRRI, BARI, BIDS, AEC, BCSIR, etc. in other sectors. Industry R&D in science, engineering and technology is non-existent. No one expects much basic research in a low-income country, but none of the industries in Bangladesh has even an active R&D department that conducts applied research to solve local problems. Most importantly, industries rarely approach universities to solve such problems. It implies that either they don't have any problem, or it is solved by local/overseas consultants.
The majority of the published research in Bangladesh are conducted by university faculty members and students. The quality of every faculty position is ensured by setting up qualifications in terms of academic results, publications and experience. Outside teaching experience, the publication requirement for assistant professor, associate professor and professor positions increases with the hierarchy from a minimum of three to fifteen publications. The quality of these publications varies and is judged differently in different universities. Generally, very few can attain associate or full professorship without a PhD degree.
The principal driving force for university research in Bangladesh is to attain qualification for the next higher position that substantially diminishes once one becomes a full professor. Of course, there are a number of faculty members in every university at every level who perform and produce high-quality research work, but unfortunately, there are not too many of them. The question that needs to be asked is why Bangladeshi university faculty members lack the motivation to do research. Is it dearth of money, facilities or something else? After an extensive literature review, a study published in The Social Science journal in 2016 identified six motivating factors for faculty research: achievement, enjoyment, work itself, recognition, rewards and pressure.
The last three—recognition, reward and pressure—are in the hands of the institutes. An organisational research environment can be established with institutional and individual leadership along with proper training and support. The greater challenge in Bangladesh is ensuring achievement, enjoyment and the work itself. STEM research in developing countries frequently follows issues and problems of high-income countries—especially in basic research—that do not have any local relevance. Seeing one's work that is locally relevant being applied, appreciated and making a difference in society gives one the highest feelings of achievement and joy. That is only possible if the universities have an active interaction with the local industries and the government. Unfortunately, both the industry and the government will generally involve foreign firms and consultants to resolve the critical problems. Despite that indifference, both agriculture and public health research have flourished in Bangladesh due to local relevancy.
In other sectors, sometimes even worthwhile findings of local custom research are not followed through, making the faculty members frustrated. As a result, they fall into the trap of doing research helping high-income countries for publication purposes, or producing lower-quality unpublishable work for the sake of churning out degrees. Finding a good graduate student interested in higher studies and research is another major hurdle for most of the faculty members in all universities in Bangladesh.
Why would a student go to a graduate school after completing the bachelor's degree? The student would weigh the worth of the extra time and money needed for the higher degree. It is not an easy decision to make even for a good student. In my 25 years of teaching graduate programmes, I would ask every student one question: why are you here? Very rarely, I would get a clear answer. Fulfilling parents' wishes, switching subject for a better job prospect, and a platform for studying abroad, etc. are some of the answers I received. A vast majority just kept quiet. They simply didn't know what they were doing in the graduate programme. None of them ever told me that they were interested in research. To be fair to the students, some said they wanted to learn the subject, but these were mostly from the industry. This could be different in other streams.
Surveys among graduate students find many reasons why they want to pursue a higher degree. One dominant thread shows the expectation of getting an edge in the job market, long-term financial benefits, more responsibility at the job, and promotions. Unfortunately, none of these conditions exist in Bangladesh. Apart from universities and a few research institutes, no other job encourages or rewards a higher degree. Outside the universities, there are very few jobs that require a PhD degree. Once, professionals in all public jobs used to get at least one increment for having a graduate degree (master's or PhD). That practice has been abolished a long time ago. It seems the job market (at least public sector) is discouraging higher studies by design. Even the universities (both public and private) prefer overseas degrees for faculty recruitment, discarding candidates with a local graduate degree. The academically inclined students tend to go overseas when they see no job prospect or reward for having a higher degree in the country.
Not only do graduate students help the faculty carry out their research work, but it is also an inherent part of their training. Research allows a student to learn solving problems individually or in a team environment. Without good graduate students, faculty research will be completely handicapped. To attract students in higher studies and research, a good job market with appropriate responsibility and compensation must be created by both industry and the government. At the same time, the University Grants Commission has to ensure honesty and ethics in the pursuit of knowledge as well as the quality of the degrees offered by our universities. The creation of a conducive research culture in the country is a multi-stakeholder task. Leaving the responsibility to the universities only will never resolve the issue.
Dr. M. Tamim is a professor of petroleum engineering and dean of the Engineering Faculty at BUET.