Population growth should concentrate minds across Bangladesh’s Higher Education sector

For anyone interested in Bangladesh and its future success an important starting point has to be the current and projected population figures. Even if there is a margin of error of ten per cent either way these figures should still cause pause for thought.
Whilst there are signs that by the middle of the century the rate of growth will slow a little, it is clear that population pressures are going to have serious ramifications for a variety of sectors. One sector it is certain to impact on is that of education, more especially higher education. It is evident that if Bangladesh is to maintain and hopefully enhance its economic position it will need to have many more undergraduate and postgraduate places. By the middle of the century it is reasonable to suggest that the country might well need between eighty and hundred additional higher education institutions, including universities. Ensuring that Bangladesh has the wherewithal to build, equip and staff high calibre institutions will demand foresight planning on a grand scale, something which to date has been conspicuous by its absence. If anything, development has been decidedly piecemeal in nature and largely haphazard. The central government has largely left matters to the private sector, something which many consider to be a high-risk strategy. Such is the crucial nature of the higher education sector to the national economy that it is vital that things are not left to chance. It is imperative that things are put in place so that the country can prepare and build up the talent base that will be essential if research excellence is to be a part of the national story.
The population figures underscore the challenge, it will be considerable. Ministries will be required to think and act in a co-ordinated manner, something that may at times feel alien. That said, the alternative is far worse, failure to adapt and plan now will almost certainly result in Bangladesh falling behind its regional and international competitors. One of the key signs of under investment and planning will be an increase in the brain drain of the brightest and the best, the very people a country should aspire to keep and cherish, will go elsewhere. A direct result of such a haemorrhaging of talent will be that Bangladesh will become far less attractive to foreign investors, and as a direct consequence the levels of Foreign Direct Investment will stagnate and decline. Any dip in FDI is bad news for jobs, and the prospect of employment for the many thousands leaving school and higher education institutions every year. All countries need to work at job creation, and encouraging inward investment is an important part of the equation.
So, what is to be done? Clearly those in positions of responsibility need to take a long hard look at the projected population figures, they cannot claim that they have not been made aware. It is essential that Bangladesh examine and where possible emulate best practise from elsewhere. One of the most important areas for consideration are in respect of the establishment of a Bangladesh Higher Education Research Council. This could have several functions including, firstly the overseeing of the allocation and monitoring of research grants, secondly it would be charged with the responsibility of making sure that all accredited higher education institutions had a research output, thirdly it would require all licenced institutions to demonstrate a commitment to raising academic standards, fourthly it would monitor and encourage Bangladeshi academics to publish their research in internationally accredited academic journals. These four key priorities would help nurture and consolidate a research culture, one that is aspirational in nature and is outward looking, thus better able to be benchmarked against international competitors. Furthermore, there would need to be an increase in the number of specialist institutions, with those who excel in research fields being entitled to bid for additional funding based on merit. Overtime there would be scope for a premier league of specialist research universities, this would be akin to the UK’s Russell Group (http://russellgroup.ac.uk/). Bangladesh also should consider having regional cluster partnerships, these could involve both public and private institutions forging meaningful partnerships and collaborations. In addition, all staff at high education institutions would be required to demonstrate continuous professional development, with academic staff having to show a willingness to engage in research and where possible write and submit academic papers for publication.
It is inevitable that there will be resistance in some quarters. Standards will only improve if complacency and indifference are challenged. There needs to be far greater transparency and accountability. To date too few institutions in Bangladesh have sought feedback from stakeholders, and as a direct consequence ‘a like it lump it mentality’ prevails. Some of the older academic institutions have lost their desire to be leading global players, and instead prefer to sit back and live off old reputations. Such attitudes have no place in a forward looking and dynamic Bangladesh. Some once leading lights will need to be pensioned off, and fresh faces and new thinking brought in. It will be a challenge, but then again, the alternative is far worse. If Bangladesh fails to plan ahead over the next few years, it will face a bleak future, one with rising youth unemployment, and all the social problems that go with a generation who feel dispossessed.
There are nascent signs of a growing awareness that things need to change. Now is as good a time as any to start putting things in place. Each higher education institution will become an important knowledge hub, one that cherishes research and forges meaningful relationships with local businesses and employers. Internationally there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that such links stimulate further research, with all the economic spinoffs that can result. Higher education excellence needs to become a way of life. Yes, additional resources will be required, and it is thus essential that all politicians regardless of their party loyalties appreciate the urgency and importance of this additional support. Hearts and minds need to be won over. The seeds of future success need to be planted now.
Training, coupled with improved national literacy and numeracy will be vital if progress is to be made. Bangladesh can easily set itself the task of emulating the likes of the Higher Education Academy (www.heacademy.ac.uk) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (www.hefce.ac.uk). Let the projected population figures provide the impetus. Whether we like it or not, change is coming. Now is the time for the higher education sector to make ready. Both the public and private sector have a role play. Government, mindful of its duty to serve all citizens, must show appropriate leadership, and budget accordingly, so that plans can be realised, ones that will yield research success and future employment. A targeted and systematic expansion of the higher education sector cannot happen over-night. It requires method, mechanisms, skilled manpower, and above all else vision. Bangladesh relishes a challenge; may it rise to this one. Onwards, and upwards.

Dr. P R Datta FCIM, FCMI
Executive Chair, Academy of Business & Retail Management, UK
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Business and Retail Management Research- A SCOPUS Indexed & SCIMAGO Ranked Journal
Mark T. Jones BA (Hons), FABRM
Consultant Futurist
Editor-in-Chief – International Journal of Higher Education Management