Science education key to Bangladesh

Ahmed A. Azad

The Daily Star

 In this age of high technology and globalisation it is expected that, to achieve sustained economic growth, developing countries need to capitalise on intelligent and judicious use of existing resources and intellectual capital. This is especially true for a highly populous country with limited land and negligible reserves of natural resources, such as Bangladesh.

Knowledge-based sustainable development requires excellence in higher education and proficiency in scientific, technological and social science disciplines that underpin economic growth. Because of paucity of funds, higher education in Bangladesh has to be need-based and predominantly science and technology oriented. While higher education is an essential prerequisite for the development of knowledge based economies, both academic excellence and sustainable development are critically dependent on scientific proficiency and a strong technology base. Excellence in higher education and quality of research are very closely related; the highest ranking universities of the world also happen to be the best research universities.

Bangladesh has made some significant progress in higher education and in the science and technology sector. It currently has 104 universities and a tertiary enrolment which is among the highest in the world.

Even with limited resources Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in agriculture and public health. It is very fortunate in having a very large and young workforce, and the intellectual capability of its young population is second to none. Researchers and technologists from Bangladesh hold important academic and management positions all around the world, whose expertise could be potentially tapped for meeting specific needs.

Why is it then that these existing advantages and capabilities have not translated into expected intellectual capital, and why is it that the research productivity of Bangladeshi academic institutions, as measured by publications and translation of research into products, hardly registers in global assessments of science and technology proficiency?

Science education is undoubtedly of paramount importance at all stages, but at the tertiary level it must be geared to meeting specific job demands and not be solely concerned with producing huge numbers of degrees that may have little or no relevance to the current and future development needs of Bangladesh.

Locally relevant and multidisciplinary science curricula need to be developed to produce sufficient numbers of trained personnel required to meet the socio-economic needs of Bangladesh and its people, especially those living in the non-metropolitan areas.

Bangladesh has a fairly good education policy; however, the successful implementation of this policy depends on the availability of a large pool of well-trained teachers, especially in science and mathematics, who are willing to live and work outside the big cities.

Because of a dearth of suitably qualified local technicians Bangladeshi companies often have to hire them from neighbouring countries. The government has established thousands of community primary health clinics but they are often undermanned due to shortage of nurses, paramedical personnel and doctors, or their unwillingness to live in non-metropolitan areas.

The government and the University Grants Commission should aim to strengthen existing teacher training colleges and polytechnic institutes, and convert at least some of the colleges under the National University into institutions for training more science and mathematics teachers, nurses, paramedical personnel and agriculture extension workers. Conditions should be created so that these professionals are accorded proper status and respect in the community.

A substantial quota of fully-funded seats in colleges should be reserved for rural students, including medical and nursing students, who should give an undertaking that they will work for a specified time in the countryside. Appropriate positions should be created in partnership with the private sector, and attractive salaries and other incentives should be provided for employment outside the big cities.

The above measures, besides meeting the current socio-economic needs of Bangladesh, would hopefully also release the inordinate pressure on places for specialised higher degrees in universities, and in the process free some additional funds for postgraduate research, which is the required route to university teaching and to research oriented professions.

Because of aspiration for postgraduate university degrees, and a demand for it by employers even when not necessary, there is too much pressure on providing university places for school leavers. In 2012 there were 2.65 million students enrolled in tertiary institutions in Bangladesh, which is higher than that in Pakistan and the fourth highest in the developing world. But quantity does not necessarily equate to excellence, and due to a lack of adequate funds, and with available resources spread too thin, the overall quality of the large numbers of university degrees and their usefulness to Bangladesh’s socio-economic development remain suspect.

Since postgraduate research in the scientific disciplines is extremely expensive, quality must take precedence over quantity. Research degrees at public universities should be viewed as a special privilege since education in public universities is virtually free; as such, admission should be based primarily on merit and aptitude.

Postgraduate research and innovation is the passport to development of intellectual capital and national wealth creation, so it needs to be internationally competitive, focused primarily on national objectives and adequately funded. The science and technology proficiency required for the stated objective of reaching middle income status is very much dependent on excellence in postgraduate research and innovation.

The writer is a retired academic and biomedical researcher.


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