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Quota reform and the integrity of the academic transcript

  • Published at 04:55 pm July 27th, 2018
Can our public university transcripts be trusted? BIGSTOCK

A spectacular opportunity exists for public university governing bodies

Off and on I have been teaching at the post-secondary level since my graduate school days. 

In the last 20 years, I have taught in each of the three major sectors of the American higher education landscape: Private four-year, public four-year, and public two-year. Even as I now work primarily as an administrator in higher education, I have continued teaching on the side.

Which is why a key concern of mine with the ugly events surrounding the quota reform movement in Bangladesh has to do less with public policy and more with academic integrity.

The strength of the most basic higher education credential from North America, Europe, or Australasia is a function of the independence of the faculty, who are supposed to have no outside pressure insofar as their curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of student performance go. 

Not that such pressure, sometimes in subtle forms, does not happen, but it is very much a rarity than the norm. 

In other words, when Professor John Smith assigns a grade of “B” to student David Jones in Economics 101, it is generally understood that David’s performance in the course was the sole determinant of his grade. 

Multiply this concept across the millions of courses in the colleges and universities of the modern world and you realize why other institutions of further higher learning, grant-making organizations, and consular officials put such weight on a transcript of academic performance coming from a college in the United Kingdom or a university in Canada.

Whether these institutions, grant-making organizations, and consular officials should be able to attach any credibility to academic transcripts of public universities in Bangladesh should be an open question now. Why?

A recurring sideshow of the horror movie that has been the mass assault on peaceful protesters by the ruling party’s university-based BCL vigilante group is the cacophony of physical attacks, social media threats, and telephonic intimidation of teachers at public universities across Bangladesh.  

Some teachers have had to go in hiding, while others have simply left their campus duties out of fear; in many cases, BCL vigilantes have shown up at their homes and threatened family members with acute harm, should the teachers not “mind their ways.” 

Other administrators, like proctors and deans have gone out of their way to pressure teachers to conform to demands of the BCL-associated vigilantes. What is, then, the guarantee that the scores, marks, grades, and other similar metrics of BCL members reflect their actual academic performance, rather than the fear of faculty members shaking in their boots? 

For that matter, what is the surety that other students connected with similar powerful mafias are not getting teachers to record favourable grades in courses through intimidation or patronization? 

There is no such guarantee or surety.

It has become plainly and painfully obvious that faculty independence has been severely compromised at Bangladesh’s public universities, both from above by spineless administrators, and from below by vigilantes masquerading as students under the protection of the state’s law enforcement umbrella. 

The system of commitment, protocols, and processes that ensure the credibility of academic assessment was already under stress in the last two years, as multiple cases of plagiarism of theses, dissertations, and journal articles were unearthed to the shame of everyone concerned. 

Now, that system has simply melted away under the rods, hammers, and guns wielded by the BCL vigilantes with impunity. That a vigilante organization whose terror reached well inside courtrooms and paralyzes the police -- as we saw during the previous weekend’s assault on journalist Mahmudur Rahman in Kushtia’s court premises -- will not exercise its muscle over the academic transcripts of members, defies logic.

While I do not serve today on university and college committees that evaluate transcripts from overseas higher education institutions, I cannot, in good faith, recommend that official transcripts from the Universities of Dhaka, Rajshahi, and Chittagong, or from BUET and Jahangirnagar University be taken at face value by an outside assessor. 

At the very least, it becomes incumbent upon foreign graduate schools, scholarship and fellowship sponsors, and Western consular officials to do additional vetting of the organizational affiliations of any student or alumnus of Bangladeshi public universities who submits a transcript as part of a benefit application. 

While such additional vetting measures are put in place, a spectacular opportunity exists for public university governing bodies to take the one action that will make such a burdensome process only temporary: Crack down hard on all terrorist organizations acting under the aegis of “student politics,” and expel all those “students” whose faces are all over the media as thugs, criminals, and vigilantes … even if they are patronized by those in state power. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]