Professor Mesbah Kamal teaches history at the University of Dhaka. Before his 37-year teaching career, he had been a student of the same university. In an interview with The Business Standard, Professor Kamal reminisces about the golden era of the University of Dhaka and shares his thoughts on its 100-year celebration.
TBS: How has DU changed from the time you were a student to what it is now?
Mesbah Kamal: Dhaka University (DU) has gone through many changes in the last hundred years. When I look back now, I see that it used to be the best educational institution, but now it has started to lose its glory, especially in the past few years.
In the 1950s and 60s, it had played a vital role in restructuring us as a nation, country, and society, and we saw its reflection in our liberation war too. I consider that as the golden time of DU.
But after that, this flow was interrupted. We were expecting, like in the previous years, DU would lead us in such a crisis moment of the pandemic. But it did not happen. Whereas other local universities have supported their PCR labs, DU did nothing. Even after having a lab and skilled human resources, we made zero contributions. I feel like DU is failing in many ways in recent years.
In recent years, DU has often taken flak for excess politicisation of its teaching and student bodies. And yet, the university is also acclaimed for its pivotal role in the great political upheavals of this country. How do you distinguish between the two, and what is a healthy political role a university can play in your view?
A university is a part of this country. So, a country's political situation certainly affects it.
Even after 50 years of the liberation war, we see anti-independence forces are in politics. There should not be any existence of such political parties. DU has always been vocal against these parties. But in that journey, DU has lost its voice too and seems to be dominated by one specific party, which is not healthy either.
In the last 30 years, only once were Ducsu elections held. But there should have been 30 elections in the last 30 years. Only then could we have expected to have dynamic leaders in our country who would have led us now. University is the place where we learn politics. We missed that opportunity and, for that, I only blame the university.
We do not see the practice of freethinking, which is eventually leading us to totalitarianism. DU had never been scared of any government or any authority; that is why we are autonomous. But now the university authority itself has become a mouthpiece for the government.
There is no democracy anymore; instead, we are practicing hereditary politics. There is no alternative to arranging students' body elections to practice politics.
In its 100 years, was there ever a period when DU played a strong role in producing international standard academic research? Why has research been consistently ignored at the country's premier university?
Analyse our budget after 1971. Our allocations are for buildings and maybe a small amount is allocated for research purposes. So, our structure of buildings is becoming stronger and not our fundamental structure – which is more necessary. The policymakers of DU never complains= about this. How would they look after such crucial things when they are insecure and busy saving their administrative positions?
In my 38-year old career, I did not see any exception to this process. But some outstanding academic research has happened here too. Then how are those produced? Dhaka University faculties did most of these researches on their own initiative.
Small government funding is available sometimes, but to get that, faculties need to participate in disrespectful rat races, which are most of the time avoided by the teachers. Also, in those funding, a researcher has to compromise the research quality depending on the financing. Who wants to make so many compromises?
As the Bangladesh economy grows impressively and we are heading towards becoming a middle-income country, do you feel DU is providing the right education and preparing students adequately for the new job market? What can be done to address the gaps?
I would say we are partially successful. It is an era of the fourth industrial revolution. To keep pace with this speed, we need to introduce new topics in our syllabus. As we are not welcoming an updated education version, a gap has been created.
In the near future, do you think private universities will replace DU as the premier academic institution in the country, or has that already happened?
A few private universities are doing excellently. They are keeping pace with the global demand, bringing international exposure, and updating the curriculum. DU and many other private universities are not doing this; so some private universities are ahead in the race. But there are issues too.
These private universities are usually focused on the market demand, so they are flexible in introducing and updating the curriculum whenever needed and missing out on teaching the basic subjects or values to students, which are equally important to be a complete human being.
How do you view the university's shift towards commercialisation in recent years, exemplified by the numerous evening courses offered by different departments?
Introducing the evening course is not bad; it should be welcomed whenever needed, but it should not be commercialised. Whenever you commercialise education, you get skilled workforces but not good citizens.
Essentially, the evening courses are for our professionals. But the thing is when we have introduced an additional course, we needed a new set of additional teachers too, which we did not do. The same faculties are taking morning and evening classes. They are not getting enough time to be prepared, they are overworked, and as a result, the quality of education is degrading. I think it should be prohibited by law soon.
Another harmful thing is letting the teachers take classes both in private and public universities. A few teachers are using this as launching pads. This way, they cannot do justice to any of their responsibilities. We have to be strict, and private and public teachers need to be separated.
Instead of commercialising, the government should raise the salaries and increase research funding so that teachers do not run after money for their livelihood and get enough scope to educate themselves.
Do you think DU should continue to be heavily subsidised by the government or should the authorities shift towards generating more of its own income such as by raising tuition fees for students?
Raising tuition fees is a wrong thing to propose, I must say. It will do nothing but destroy our education. Instead, the government should take the whole responsibility of students – from accommodation to education, allocate more budget in education.
Also, there is a misconception that students from higher class families only get admitted to private universities. But now many students from middle class, lower middle-class families are also getting admitted. Therefore, without wasting a moment, the government should look into this matter and help these enthusiastic students to pursue their education.