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'Teachers are the heart of the system'

  • Published at 01:06 am November 15th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:17 pm November 15th, 2017
'Teachers are the heart of the system'

In order to retain the current state, how do you plan to keep your curriculum and teaching framework relevant to the changes in modern education systems around the world?

Teaching, research and service to the community are fundamental activities of modern higher education systems. It is for each university to determine the blend they wish to develop in keeping with their targeted student body. We consider teachers as the heart of the system.  They are our agents who transform hearts and minds. We want certain basic skills to be transferred to the students through general education (Gened), and then we want them to focus on their majors. We started the Gened programme after a year of research. Students have to take 14 courses through which they are given five core skills – communication, critical thinking, basic math skills, digital skills, and global awareness. To build modern majors, we have asked our departments to emulate renowned universities in the Asian region as benchmarks and grow through adaptation. The universities in Bangladesh are far from competing with A-grade universities of the world; we are not Oxfords, Harvards or Heidelbergs that have had centuries to become what they are today. We are at a level where we have to plan our curricula keeping in mind the context and the students who come from a background where, even with a GPA-5, many of them cannot survive Brac University’s curricula. Once the supply chain begins to provide better-prepared students our curricula and programs should advance commensurately. But they should be sufficiently challenging and in keeping with global standards so that the best students do not get short-changed. There are actually two tracks for all faculty members to pursue; a teaching track and a research track. In the teaching track they must know “how to teach.” For that purpose, we now we have a Professional Development Center (PDC) where the faculty are required to learn about andragogy – how adult learners learn. We also require all our new teachers as well as existing ones to be certified by this programme. The British Council and the UGC have taken great interest in our endeavour. So, in a sense, we are playing a huge leadership role in improving the “learning” environment. Recruitment is another strategic area. We have a lot of young faculty members who require a PhD to advance in their careers. For lack of excellent PhD programs in the country they are forced to go abroad.  Many of them opt to stay back and pursue research or industry tracks in line with their training. Hopefully after 10-15 years, they would return with knowledge that is pertinent to the country’s growth needs. Another good portion of our faculty members are quite senior. My strategy is to fill the void in the middle by recruiting at the appropriate level. Senior faculty members are asked to play the role of mentors and be good researchers, bringing in resources, a variety of ideas and real-world problems to be addressed intellectually, but with a policy bent. I want my faculty to be good both in teaching, as well as research. Another pillar of building a great university is top quality administration. I am encouraging our administration to learn how to work with computers, data sets, programme planning, effective communication (spoken and written), and relationship management. They must grow from being mere order-takers to becoming capable, creative, responsible, caring and decisive individuals, able to “serve” their stakeholders and help the university meet its goals. I make it clear that all decisions need not be made at my level or higher.

What are you doing to ensure your induction of new students is truly world-class? What are the criteria that a student must fulfil during admission?

I am not sure we need to induct “world-class” students; we intend to make good students better and ensure that they are literate, functional, wise and capable of problem-solving. What drives BracU is the desire to equip students with relevant knowledge. We want to see successful students and that is why we have the new tagline in our logo, “Inspiring Excellence”. The concept of successful students falls within a broad framework and is hard to articulate in simple terms: They must be intelligent, articulate, capable, emotionally sound, healthy, and with ethical values instilled in them; they must also imbue a contemplative spirit to be able to reflect on their purpose in life. This is our broad goal. When we bring in students, we want to make sure that, qualitatively, there is not a huge standard deviation. Meaning, there cannot be a wide range of high quality students and poor quality ones at the same time. To address the variation problem, we have a fairly rigorous admission procedure. Even after they pass the admission test, the candidates are required to appear for a viva where we assess their personal characteristics, communication skills, emotional stability and overall confidence to see whether they will fit into the university’s ambiance. So we are selective. For students with potential, we also have pre-university programmes that nurture them and prepare them for the rigours of university life. We understand that some students are weak due to the background they are coming from. During the pre-university programme, we make sure that students’ English skills are honed and upgraded. This is vital in a globalized world to be able to work with and negotiate with peoples of other nations. We also need more world-class programmes. We are transforming our programmes and curricula from being traditional and what other universities offer. For example, we are contemplating a school of design which can integrate a lot of subjects like architecture, landscaping, interior design and so on. For the business school, we have 10 CEOs as advisors. We have asked them to advise us on ways in which we can make our programmes better and relevant to their needs. We are also trying to push entrepreneurship development skills: our goal here is to create “job creators” and not “job seekers.” We are also exploring inter-disciplinary programs so that students are not boxed into a particular category. We are moving very fast into the mode of what world class institutions do and we are not really into what other local universities are doing here – we will be held back if we do that. Our institutes (JPGSPH, BIGD, BIL and BIED) are already known for their innovative and community-focused work within the country and beyond. Each unit/department in the university is empowered to bring about innovative changes within its ambit. They are encouraged to reinvent themselves according to the needs of the time. The residential semester in Savar, too, plays an important role. This programme is compulsory for all students, where they have to go away to the Savar campus for an entire semester. It’s about getting them out of the traditional groove and giving them life lessons by living in a community, away from the comforts of their homes, helping them learn how to manage their lives and relationships, giving them ethical lessons through a mandatory humanities course, along with a Bangladesh Studies course that helps them learn about the history and culture of our country. They also have to strengthen their communication skills in a foreign language.

What opportunities are there for BracU to operate on the global stage?

We are engaging in a lot of MoUs with universities abroad to engage in cooperative programs. We are working with a number of development agencies such as Asian Development Bank, DFiD, UNDP, British Council, IDS, C&A Foundation and many more. Recently, we received a significant grant from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation (OSF) that will be used mostly for scholarships, particularly for underprivileged students, but also for research support. Grants like these are helping us bring in students from Uganda. We are also reaching out to other institutions for exchange programmes. Brac’s connections with other countries help us in that regard. Our faculty are doing collaborative research with other universities across USA, Europe, Asia, and several development agencies. Our new “immersion in development programme” is likely to bring in short-term intellectual capital from across the globe to engage in problem-solving.

BracU came out number one by a considerable margin over the next university. Was this surprising to you or were you aware that Brac was ahead?

We are not surprised, but it is a great feeling that our efforts are beginning to pay off. It is also largely because we care about our students and their success. Our enrolments are not too large (with managed growth) which allows us to engage with them better. But we can be even better (through continuous quality improvement). For example, we need more hours of student-teacher engagement beyond the classroom, trying to come up with innovative ideas for community service and research. We are also encouraging all members of the university to innovate and reinvent ways of “reaching” and not “teaching.” Integrity, rigour, dedication and creativity are vital to our journey in providing quality education.

Does BracU intend to focus more on research? What are the factors, in our opinion, that are contributing to achieve such extraordinary scores for research?

Research is very important for a university’s intellectual standing. Being a part of the wider community we need to engage with this community much more than what we do at present, through research to understand its problems and challenges. But we want a good balance of research and high quality teaching. One without the other is debilitating. We are trying to revitalise our masters programmes since we are not allowed to provide PhD degrees. We believe that most of our noteworthy research will take place at the masters level. For this purpose we have budgeted a significant amount for research support. Onnesha, the first nano satellite of the country, has received significant research support and acclaim. The solar energy programme is also growing, designing solar-powered vehicles such as ambulances. Architecture department’s “resilient” housing in disaster-prone areas is another case in point. School of Business is shifting to entrepreneurship development in phases. We want the invested seed research monies to generate substantial grants in the future for the various departments. We also want our undergraduate programmes to be similarly experiential with some research component. The new ‘scholars programme’ is an example. Undergrads need to do more than just pass exams; rather, they need to invest time in community service, learn from case studies, work in the industries, complete group projects, perform community monitoring (of water and air quality, traffic problems, gender discrimination, etc.). These strategic thrusts make our faculty members to also engage in research, that powers innovative teaching and new modes of inquiry. We do a substantial amount of research but, I believe, we need to go further in terms of world class research. We have brought in experts to assist and partner with us. UC Berkley, Penn State, University of Michigan, and Harvard have come here to work on case studies, entrepreneurship programmes, research projects and more. We also invited several scholars (e.g., from UPenn and Cambridge); I asked them to conduct classes on research methodology for faculty members because they need to appreciate world-class research methods. These steps have strengthened our faculty capabilities to do better quality research. Our encouragement of faculty to publish in SCOPUS journals (especially for promotions), is also likely to take BRACU to a higher research status. We have also instituted a plagiarism policy that cautions faculty on its implications for a university’s reputation in the community of academic institutions. Currently, the majority of our resources come from students’ tuition fees. With that, we cannot go very far. So now, I have asked all my department chairs to look for alternative mechanisms of bringing in resources. We need to bring in more research grants. We can work with development agencies. We are thinking about industry-academy partnerships and others ways to improve the resource base. Such engagements are also important in the growth of our faculty; they must get out of the traditional lecture mode of preparing our students and engage them with real-world problems and issues. There are also many incentives for faculty and administration who pursue alternative means of resource generation. Our next goal is to become one of the best in South Asia. We cannot be satisfied by only being the top university in Bangladesh.

How are you making education more accessible to all students?

We are giving away a great number of scholarships; both merit and need-based. We are also strengthening our support systems so that struggling students get proper guidance for success. Every student counts: they are not just a name or a source of revenue. Their future matters to us. We are not perfect, but we are working hard to close the gaps.

How do you help students cope with the pressures of university life and then in the job market?

There are club activities. I encourage teachers to engage more with them and become friendly and accessible. We are looking to introduce more prerequisite so that weaker students are better prepared to handle the more demanding courses. The Residential Semester is also important as a getaway for a new experience. Space is of concern to us, but we have already started building a world-class facility – an iconic building – with inputs from both local and international experts. This facility will offer many other avenues of learning in innovative ways. We are working hard to build links with our alumni and developing industry links to build opportunities for our graduating students. And we have started an entrepreneurship programme to support students with innovative ideas: we will fund their enterprises and nurture them along the way. Two such initiatives have already been funded. We have programmes aimed at enriching our students culturally, for example recently we introduced ‘Desh, Mati o Shwadhinatar Gaan.’ We have plans to introduce the Ponchokobis: Students will get a glimpse of the lives of five of our biggest cultural figures, like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, Dwijendralal Ray, Rajanikanta Sen and Atul Prasad Sen. Besides studying, students will have options to engage with the traditions of Bangla poems and music to remind them about the rich cultural heritage of Bangladesh.

When is the new campus becoming fully functional?

We expect it to be operational by 2019.