Office of the vice-chancellor of a leading public university. A meeting is going on involving deans and chairmen. It is not really technical, but during the discussion somebody wants to know what a certain cost would be with a small change of one data. The calculation involves multiplying two two-digit numbers and adding a third.
One of the chairmen from the science faculty gives the answer in 5 seconds. But the VC is not convinced. He asks for a calculator, and it takes minutes to get hold of one. Then he needs a couple of minutes to learn how to handle it. Finally, eureka! He manages to finish the two operations in another minute. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief, because his answer does agree with the one given quite some minutes ago.
One does not have to be a genius to be able to handle calculations involving small numbers we face in everyday life, and it is possible to find vegetable sellers in the marketplace telling the buyer in a jiffy the price of 1.750 kg of aubergine at whatever the going rate may be. Also, wasting a few minutes in a meeting is not all that important, when most of the time is spent in useless rhetoric, tea-sipping and applauding politely to somewhat dull and stale jokes.
All the VCs of public universities are highly qualified erudite people whose principle task is keeping the campus free of bloodshed. Naturally, politically astute people are appointed, who know how to handle student leaders, of all parties, but mostly of the party in power, and they must also know how to win the hearts of the teachers who elect them to the position, by offering them all kinds of possible perks, including turning a blind eye to truant teachers who remain abroad beyond their approved leave, or spend more time in private universities or at talk shows in the TV channels.
And they must have good relations with the editors of the tabloids who can easily unmake a man by publishing with a banner heading a false accusation and then print the protest letter on the third page in small type three days later, after the harm has been done. The VCs are wise people, even if they feel nervous in handling numbers.
But veg sellers can also be very clever, knowing how to pay minimal toll to the local mastaans and you know who, how much to increase the price that would optimise profit, what chemicals to add to their products to keep them looking fresh day after day. They can do all this without an MBA or MSc or even HSC certificate. Life can go on fairly well without higher education. Apparently.
Many of our famous politicians declare that they have had only primary education, while there are one or two with a PhD (not counting ‘honorary’ ones). Watch them speak, and you would not know the difference. They all have to say the same things – “We shall eradicate poverty, increase production, keep prices under control, provide more electricity”, whatever you, the people, want to hear. Sugar and spice and all things nice. Statements involving numbers are disposable – like promises to sell rice at a certain impractical price. However, it is easy to shout oneself hoarse talking about the digitalisation of the country without knowing what the word means.
But while they talk about development, they also vandalise one another’s offices, grab public property, beat up workers of opposite parties, sometimes get involved with more serious crimes, and occasionally literally get away with murder. The most important thing is complete allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the party. Education does not seem to make all that much difference.
What happens when VCs meet the Leader? Since all the VCs are selected on the basis of allegiance to the government party, as allowed by the system, the meeting is very cordial. The founder of the country had a weakness for good students and chose his son-in-law probably by looking more at his impressive academic achievements than party activism. Had this scholar decided to become a teacher and been in good health, he would probably have been a VC himself at the latter part of his career. It is possible that the Leader too has some fondness for academicians.
A few days ago the newly appointed chairman of the UGC met the PM along with the VCs of the public universities. Most of the money allotted to these institutions are spent to pay salaries and for building staff quarters for teachers and employees, and student dorms. Despite the extremely limited funds for research, some Dhaka University and BUET teachers have succeeded in carrying out research of an international standard.
When a teacher of the Applied Physics Department of Calcutta University came to this country, we learned from him that his department alone gets more money for research than the research budget of all the universities of Bangladesh put together. When scientist-turned-politician Dr Abdul Moyeen Khan, who was a BNP Minister of Science, tried to increase the government allocation for science research projects, he was snubbed by the finance minister Mr Saifur Rahman, who could not see the point of having any scientific research in this country.
Mr Saifur Rahman was an accountant, not an economist, and was more interested in balancing his ledger book than in daring to invest in the future. In economic theory the usually accepted reason for defeating the Malthusian nightmare is the creation of new technologies that cause quantum jumps in productivity. That needs investment in science and in higher education.
The PM and the university representatives had a long meeting. Unfortunately, the media gave the greatest prominence to the most ridiculous part of the dialogue. The UGC chairman had already upgraded his status to that of a state minister. Obviously the PM, like her father, thought that academia needed to be respected. This would have been seen as a positive step if the current chairman had not held a press conference immediately to explain that this upgrading was personal, and for him only.
In dubious taste, his office prominently displays this status on the UGC webpage, and organisers of functions attended by him are encouraged to address him as a state minister explicitly.
Now he is asking his rank to be enhanced to that of a full minister. Naturally, his companions, the VCs, are also demanding the status of a slightly lesser breed, i.e. MPs. It is not clear how the upgrading of status of these persons is related to the government’s plans of poverty alleviation, increased production, price stabilisation or the development of the energy sector, or even improving the quality of education.
What was needed was more money for better labs and for research, but the PM told the universities to ask their alumni to help. Wasn’t the PM herself an alumna of DU? In Bangladesh, prosperous ex-students donate a few lakh taka to form a trust fund in memory of their beloved departed relatives, to award medals, scholarships and prizes. There are very few substantial donations to the universities, because the culture has not yet taken hold. In the USA, a president of a university is usually chosen according to his perceived ability to maximise donations from alumni and affluent people. Here, political usefulness is the chief criterion of selection.
So the VCs must now go back to their offices and ask their PAs for calculators, get a list of possible donors and do some arithmetic. It won’t be hard, for there is a principle in science which says that small numbers produce small numbers. The veg peddler can increase his prices as he likes. VCs cannot increase tuition fees. They must avoid bloodshed at all cost. It does not really matter if less money means dooming to insignificance their institutions on a regional scale. But the MP status is something to look forward to.
Ahmed Shafee is a former professor of physics.