Average 6.5% annual economic growth in Bangladesh brings both challenges and opportunities for its higher education

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Mohammed Shajahan
Mohammed Shajahan

Enjoying an annual growth rate of 6.5% for many years, Bangladesh has unique demands for its higher education. A leading industrialist, Mohammed Shajahan is one of the founders of North South University (NSU), Bangladesh’s first private university. He talks to Tony Martin about the challenges and opportunities that this situation present.

Bangladesh has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years. What impact has this had on demand for a university education? and on its supply?

Bangladesh has attained a sustained growth of 6.5% over the past two decades, thanks to entrepreneurial initiatives of the private sector. Higher growth rates and expanded economic activities have increased demand for skilled and professional manpower. Demand for IT graduates and business graduates has gone up tremendously in tandem with higher growth rate. Private sector investment in higher education came very handy in meeting the growing demand for educated and skilled manpower. Private investments in IT, power generation, readymade garments and infrastructure projects increased – to take advantage of cheaper skilled manpower in the concerned sectors. So, demand for and supply of higher education had synergic relations in the 1990s and 2000s and the relations continue even today. A portion of the demand is of course met with graduates and professionals from foreign universities because of non-availability of the graduates in home country industries and enterprises.

What are the aspirations of higher education institutions and government to raise the recognition of university degrees in Bangladesh? What forms of accreditation are already in place both domestically and internationally? Are other forms of accreditation sought by the universities?

While aspirations for recognition of Bangladeshi degrees have been universal for admissions to higher education institutions and for job markets, approaches to recognition and standards have been different. Recognition for public university degrees has been regulated by the University Grants Commissions, but the outcomes, in general, has not been satisfactory. The Ministry of Education is contemplating to set up an accreditation council and upscale the University Grants Commission but public-sector initiatives are always very slow. In the meantime, UGC, with funding assistance from the World Bank has instituted quality assurance process of university education country-wide.

As far as professional recognition and standards are concerned, however, institutions like Bangladesh Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh Medical Council, Bangladesh Pharmaceuticals Council and the Bar Council are assuring quality of professional education reasonably well.

In response to another challenge, that is non-recognition of degrees by Bangladeshi universities, private ones, in particular, Bangladeshi professional schools like Business and Engineering are successfully getting accredited from American accreditation agencies like ACBSP for business.

While legislation was approved in 2014 to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in Bangladesh, we read that none have yet been approved. Why is this?

This is an interesting issue. At one point of time, a Philippine university, AMA Computer University, Quizon city, was set up in Dhaka well before the law was passed allowing foreign private universities in Bangladesh. However, the venture did not get off the ground well and they went back along with some of their Bangladeshi students. The present American International University (AIUB) is a precursor of that initiative. Seeing Monash proliferating in Malaysia, it was thought that Monash and some of the British universities might open satellites in Bangladesh. But things have not happened in this direction. The reason could be crowding out of foreign investments by local enterprises and also lack of sufficient demand from local students. Concern for quality in these local hybrids could also be the reason.

We read that Bangladesh university graduates have a higher unemployment rate than that of its school leavers. Why is this? Does this statistic apply equally to private universities and public universities? What measures can the authorities, or others, take to improve this?

The number of graduates from nearly a hundred private universities is colossal. Compared to the supply, absorption capacity in the private sector is very limited. Public sector job opening is also very small. To an extent, the backward bending supply curve in response to lower compensation could also be the reason. Graduates from say top 5 private universities would compete very well compared to other graduates from public and private universities. Attracting more private investments through improving regulatory mechanism, reducing cost of business in power, telecom and infrastructure would expand job opportunities.

Around the world, university internationalisation has become a vital ingredient for institutional reputation and success. What steps are Bangladeshi universities taking to internationalise?

Bangladeshi private universities have been expanding collaboration with foreign universities in terms of faculty exchange, student exchange and joint research. There are some limitations on the part of Bangladeshi universities though. Availability of matching funds, research facilities and research capability are some of them. In most cases, foreign universities take the lead in collaboration because of their comparative advantages in research capacity and funding. A model example of internationalisation with equity in participation could be four nations’ Public Policy and Governance (PPG) programme, a graduate study programme with participation of Bergen University, Norway, Peradeniya University, Kandy, Sri Lanka, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and North South University, Bangladesh. The key to the success of the international programme is maintaining a very high standard of the programme by North South focal point.

Another key element of university advancement is the production of high quality academic research and subsequently its publication in top journals and frequent citation of the articles. What is the progress of research in Bangladeshi universities? In what subjects is it strongest?

The first-generation quality research and publications in Bangladesh have been peer reviewed and blind reviewed journals. Now, university faculty members talk about more standardised measures of quality publications like ABDC, Impact factor, and SCOPUS index. But admittedly, the number of quality publications specially from social sciences, liberal arts and business is very limited. But because the demand for quality publications is high, faculty members have been increasingly catering to the market demand.

North South University is the first private university in Bangladesh, founded in 1992. As the pioneer of private universities, what has been the key impact of NSU on Bangladeshi higher education?

North South University is the trendsetter when it comes to modern Western education with American curriculum in Bangladesh. North South saw the introduction of three semesters with letter grading. Availability of Western education at the door step of the students at cheaper cost brought about revolution in education system. While in a public university, average graduation time for a student would run into 5–6 years because of session jams, students with 120–130 credits would graduate in 12 semesters or 4 years. North South brought about a paradigm shift in higher education and it set the trend for nearly a hundred private universities. It was also the first private university to achieve an American accreditation, ACBSP, and other universities are now following the example.

What motivates an industrial entrepreneur such as yourself to help create and run a university such as NSU? How does your commercial standing benefit the university?

Primarily it was the need of the nascent private sectors for educated youths to be employed in the business enterprises. In the 1990s, Bangladesh was spending huge amount of foreign exchanges in higher education in Western countries. The need of checking brain drain was also a motivating factor. We set up NSU and operated it on non-profit basis. For a nascent business sector in Bangladesh, non-profit operation was also a courageous step. Other business entrepreneurs and industrialists, philanthropists, educationists, and retired civil and military bureaucrats followed suit with similar ventures like Independent University, Bangladesh, East West University and the like.

Mr Shajahan is the managing director of Jalal Ahmed Spinning Mills Ltd and Shah Fatehullah Textile Mills Ltd and the chairman of Genvio Pharma Limited, a pharmaceutical company. He was elected the president of BTMA for four consecutive years, from 1996 to 1999. Mr Shajahan acted as the director of Bangladesh Chamber of Industries in 1997, 1998, 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, he was appointed the Honourary Consul of the Republic of Moldova in Bangladesh in 1999 – a position he held for an unbroken period of 15 years. He served as the president of the Consular Corps Bangladesh (CCB) for 2012–2013 and chairman of South Asia Regional Committee of the World Federation of Consuls in October 2013. Mr Shajahan has received many awards, which include FICAC gold medal from His Royal Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, the prestigious Desh Bondhu CRD as award of India for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2001, and the Melvin Johns Fellow of Lions Club International in 1991 for the growth of Lions club and Leo Clubs in Dhaka. Mr Shajahan is one of the founders of North South University and The North South Foundation for Education and Research. NSU is the first private university in Bangladesh, established in 1992.