LARGER THAN LIFE

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The search for research

What has gone wrong with our public universities?

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About three decades ago, my sister and her friends from the Geography department went somewhere in Sylhet to do the research assigned to them by their faculties. They stayed there for about a fortnight and did their research work. 

When she returned home, I wanted to know about their fieldwork. Their work seemed very interesting to me. I also learned that she and her friends were to write a thesis paper on their fieldwork. 

I became more interested when I heard the word “thesis.” My sister wrote one to graduate, and I again asked her: What would your teachers do with so many thesis papers? She replied: They will keep them for a few years in the store and then sell them off to some paperwala. 

That piece of news surprised me. I thought the university would help publish the best thesis papers that may help the policymakers, professionals, or other researchers in their work. That is what renowned universities do with the research of their students.

I studied Literature and heard about thesis papers but never knew how to write one. Our teachers were explaining volumes after volumes to us but they never taught us how to research on a certain topic. At the same time, no one was also teaching us how to write. Despite appearing for written exams, no one was teaching us how to write.

Decades after our graduation from university, our institutions of higher education continue to lag behind in research. This issue has been discussed at length in various forums but we are yet to see the ability, eagerness, motivation, or fund allocation for research work at our universities. 

Take a recent report, for example. The recent report prepared by the University Grants Commission claimed that 35 universities did not spend anything for research work in 2020. The report also said that out of 150 universities, 44 spent up to Tk10 lakh. The report said our universities don’t publish any books or periodicals. Only a few public universities publish a handful of journals.

The UGC report reveals some serious points to ponder. Some universities have spent money and time on research, but we haven’t witnessed any results. Those works haven’t led us to any innovation, any new thinking. On the other hand, some private universities have excelled in their areas of interest in research and have actually conducted research activities -- way more than the public universities.

What has gone wrong with our public universities? The information that we receive about them is all too frustrating. We are not hoping for much; we don’t expect our universities to secure top-100 positions. We simply want our universities to become seats of knowledge that can develop our society. They, the public ones, for many years after their establishment, were great seats of learning. The students who studied there contributed to this country greatly. 

How did we become so inattentive in developing our universities into institutions that would positively aid our national development? By national development, I don’t mean to produce a bunch of employment-seekers who would become government officials or work in corporate houses. I mean the creation of a population who can see deeper into a subject, dwell in it, and find new perspectives. That is only possible when we are taught how to research, how to focus and think deeply. 

I wanted to know from one of my friends, a professor at Khulna University, what was keeping us from being more research-oriented. He gave me four reasons: a) lack of motivation; b) lack and/or inadequate use of resources and facilities; c) lack of funds; and d) lack of potential.

If my friend’s response is any indicator, “motivation” and “potential” are two important words that we may think of addressing.

Another friend of mine, a chair of a Department of English at a public university, told us that the teachers of the department now impart their lectures in Bangla because the students don’t understand English. No disrespect to our Bangla language, but it looks like the lack of learning is deeper than we thought. It goes back to schools and colleges. If we were taught English language for twelve years up to HSC, why wouldn’t we understand it at the university level? 

Allow me to speak for myself. I still don’t know how to research a topic properly and have a better understanding about it. I tried watching a few YouTube videos and got some basic guidelines. I wonder why I wasn’t taught to research in school -- say in grades six to 10.

I wish we had deep-teaching during our school years. By deep-teaching, I don’t mean burdensome learning; I mean understanding what the methods are to learn more about a subject. We learn every day or we think we learn, but do we? Do we follow any method(s)? Are we taught any method(s) by our teachers?

The only method we are taught is to memorize. The universities are also following the same method – memorizing. Memorizing will never take us to the expected level. We must come out of this abyss. 

Ekram Kabir is a story-teller, a yogi and a communications professional. His other works can be found on ekramkabir.com.

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