Global university ranking exercises rarely make headlines in Bangladesh. Part of the reason is that they are somewhat predictable. Irrespective of the assessment method followed, North American, British and Australian universities dominate the list and occupy top positions. However, recent trends suggest that this may change in the distant future. Although not as spectacular as East Asia’s economic ascendancy, Eastern universities are gradually making their mark. According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2013 ranking published last month, a good number of universities from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have broken into the global top 500 list in recent years.
Since 2003, the Shanghai based ARWU have been examining data on more than 1200 universities and published ranks of the best 500 on the web. This is the Asian equivalent of the prestigious UK-based Times Higher Education (THE) ranking of universities worldwide. The other widely recognised international university list is the QS World University Rankings.
This year’s ARWU list of top 500 also includes universities from India, Malaysia, and many from China. However, none of Bangladesh’s 34 public and 70 private universities is present on the list. At a time when Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are making inroads into foreign markets by exporting quality readymade garments and our world class NGOs are offering development solutions to countries in Africa and Asia, our universities are nowhere near their Asian neighbours. Bangladesh even failed to make it to the 2013 QS list of top 200 Asian universities.
One may argue that it is too early to expect Bangladeshi universities to attain international standard given our low income and lack of resources. After all, most Asian countries breaking into top 100 Asian universities in ARWU and top 500 in QS and THE lists are upper middle or high income countries. However, analysis of QS ranking for 2013, which also separately lists the top 300 Asian universities, reveals two additional patterns. First, despite low income, both India and Pakistan have a strong presence in Asia’s finest 200. India has as many as 11 and Pakistan has 7 in the top 200. The top 100 also includes 21 from China. Second, some of these universities have been developed by private entrepreneurs. One case in point is Lahore University of Management and Science (LUMS) of Pakistan. In contrast, none of our “renowned” private universities manages to get into the top 300 of Asian universities. Dhaka University is the only successful entry from Bangladesh featuring in the top 300 QS Asian university list. However, owing to its “less than satisfactory” research records, it ranks between 201 and 300. No wonder Bangladesh is also absent from ‘THE 2013 list of Asian top 100’.
When universities are ranked each year by different international agencies, attention is paid to a number of factors. Whilst QS, ARWU and THE rankings differ in terms of the weight they put on a given institutional attribute, disciplinary focus and the quality of instruction, all three are unanimous on the importance of scientific research. To give a specific example, ARWU uses indicators such as the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes, number of highly cited researchers and number of articles published in prestigious journals. Universities that chiefly rely on “research inactive” teachers inadvertently fall out of the league table. It is no wonder that our universities have failed to secure position in any of the three lists of global top 400 universities produced in the last 10 years.
As a matter of fact, the reputation of some of our private and public universities significantly outweighs their measurable research performance. None of our universities emphasises on research activities. Since many chose not to enter global ranking exercises, their actual performance and quality relative to their peers in neighbouring countries remains unknown. Many Bangladeshi public universities even struggle to maintain an academic environment that is congenial for teaching and learning activities. They remain closed for long period due to student violence and destructive on-campus political activities.
It is high time that the government formulated policy measures to encourage our universities to participate in international comparisons such as QS, ARWU and THE. To break into global league tables, reform measures must be put in place so that individuals with research ability are attracted to university teaching. Retention and promotion must be conditioned upon scholarly work that is evaluated externally by peers in their respective field. Current institutional structure creates little incentive to pursue scholarship. Staff members get away by publishing in in-house journals of dubious quality. Sadly, this has led to mediocrity in academic research. Some of our universities have simply become a sanctuary for mediocre teachers.
East Asia still has a long away to go before it is established as the main destination for higher education seeking students from around the world. However, the aspiration of countries in the region to promote university-led research to strengthen their economies cannot go un-noticed. If Bangladesh is to emulate East Asia’s economic success, it must ensure that its universities also aspire to position themselves amongst Asia’s best. Needless to say, a quality university system will give the economy the much needed productivity boost by expanding the supply of highly skilled entrepreneurs, medical professionals, engineers and researchers. Without one, the prospect of Bangladesh achieving middle income country status may remain a distant dream.
M Niaz Asadullah teaches economics at Reading University, UK.