Just twenty years ago, Chittagong University had some 25,000 students and was the only fully-fledged university in the city or, indeed, for a hundred kilometres in any direction. Now, the number of universities - both public and private - has seen a mushroom growth. Middle-class young adults who would never have dreamed of undertaking a degree at that time now find that the doors of banking and insurance houses are closed to them if they have not graduated. Even worse, perhaps, they are seen as failures among their friends and even by members of their families if they do not get a degree certificate. For these reasons, there are now, maybe, a lac of students in Chattogram and that number is growing all the time.
Yet, we need to ask whether the new private universities - and even public ones - are properly preparing the younger generation for employment in secure and profitable jobs, benefitting both themselves and the country. 'International' universities, for instance, even if they cannot claim state-of-the-art facilities, should be able to guarantee that their students come out the other end of a four-year degree course at least able to speak and write decent English. Sadly, we know that this is often not the case. Neither can they say with their hands on their hearts that their students are prepared for the world of work. Too often, they simply do not have the skills necessary for the marketplace.
Universities have been slow to adapt their teaching to a new type of student, one who is not necessarily excited by her or his choice of subject but has sought admission merely as a rite of passage for middle class youth - another four years of study that have to be suffered with patience, rather than a journey of knowledge and discovery. And all to get that job with a reputable company where they will be valued and offered opportunity!
This is the reality of tertiary education, not just in Bangladesh but in many other parts of the world, including developed nations. It is the duty of our universities, then, to inspire, guide and motivate the young, to show them that a course of study should not only lead to a certificate but to skills, independent and critical thinking, and remunerative employment.
For this to happen though, universities cannot simply continue to offer dry-as-dust lectures to students who are half-asleep in their chairs, eagerly awaiting the end of the academic day. Faculty need to engage these students by getting them to take the lead in exploring their subject areas for themselves. They must be part of the learning that should be going on in the lecture hall, offering opinions, collaborating with their fellows, problem-solving - in short, engaging with their subject, with the faculty, with their classmates. The traditional passive roles we associate with students are not fulfilling the demands of industry, which needs young people who can take the initiative and think on their feet. These young employees have to take responsibility for their jobs and the decisions they make in them. What industry already has more than enough of is fresh graduates waiting to be told what to do morning after morning, unable to commit to making decisions or implementing them.
And this is what Southern University Bangladesh is now trying to remedy. It realises that most of its students are motivated not by a love of eighteenth century literature or anatomy or Ohm's Law, but by the prospect of a satisfying and well-paid job. As such, it has put together a Certificate in University Learning and Teaching, which aims to upgrade and diversify the teaching skills of its faculty so that they are focussed on involving students in their studies. It is overhauling its English language courses and introducing language clubs, so that all Southern graduates are proficient in English. It is honing young people's ICT skills so that they can communicate not just through social media but on a professional basis with future colleagues all over the world.
The Certificate course is demanding for faculty, lasting five months, with both theoretical and practical elements so that faculty are observed while teaching in their classrooms time and again, to ensure that the new ideas they discuss on the course are actually being implemented.
It is a great challenge for busy professionals but Southern University Bangladesh believes that we must make this commitment now so that we can assure students and their parents they are getting the very best opportunity for great employment that money can buy.
Dr. Mark Bartholomew is Academic Advisor at Southern University Bangladesh
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