Launch of The Higher Education Task Force Report

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 Omni Shoreham Hotel, Regency Ballroom, Washington, D.C.

Mr Saadat Husain, Secretary, Primary and Mass Education Division, Ministry of Education, Bangladesh

I could not read the report line by line, it was impossible. I could only gloss over it, particularly the statistical proportion of it which, of course, has gathered up to 1995. I believe that if we had gathered 1998-99 the situation could have been different for some countries - at least for my country.

I am impressed, if not by the report itself, because I could not see it, by the scintillating presentations of the authors and duly compliment the president of World Bank, Dr Wolfensohn. And so, I have to base my reactions on the presentations that have been made.

But I have a few comments which I am not sure whether it is against or for - I think they are general comments and one or two questions.

My first question is about student politics in higher educational institutions. Students of higher educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities in developing countries, comprise a special group because of their physical strength, very big and strong, and because of their unique emotional character. They are a special group, to be honored. Sometimes on their own, because they think it is their moral responsibility, they protest against some of the orders of the society - or particularly of the government - so they form a volatile group. And sometimes, because other agencies would like to utilize such a strong group, they also fall prey to the tricks of the politicians or other agency people. As a result, many of the higher educational institutions not only of developing countries, but also of developed countries, form a volatile group.

We have seen the action in Paris, in the United States, in Seoul, in Jakarta, in Bangkok and of course in Bangladesh. So my question is, have you considered this aspect (which is a serious problem in matters of higher education in Bangladesh)? I am told that the World Bank group when they were considering programs for higher education, to help higher education in Bangladesh, this was a massive issue. In fact in some meetings, the subject was raised: can they approach the university premises with a moral presence, rather than physical. So I would like to know whether you have considered this particular aspect, the moral issue of student politics, and the practical problems with it.

I say moral issue because students in many countries, particularly in our countries, have spearheaded many moves which are morally correct, politically right and which arguably led to the independence of the country, so at the macro level their activities cannot always be decried. But at the micro level we find some of their activities create serious problems for the governance and administration which you have noted. So, I'd like to know whether you have considered this aspect, and if you have considered, have you thought if there was any way out from this dilemma.

Number two is about brain-drain. This is an issue which has been debated, has been discussed at many forums, and we feel assured by developing countries when it is discussed at forums of developed countries. But my question is what is the alternative? Have you thought out any serious measures to keep the brainy people in the developing country? And if you have not considered it I have a suggestion, which is crude but which pinpoints the real problem.

Why not create a World Fund to support those brilliant people who have a higher degree and who serve in the developing country, to support them? Because if you believe in equal pay for equal job, why should we get one fifth of the salary? So there should be some way to support those who are suffering because they have decided to serve in the developing country and they are sacrificing. So I think some World Fund could be created, if you really want to stop the brain drain. These days international degrees are comparable, and international testing is there, so you can find those who have that international level really and who have attained that level. And I feel that such a fund could help retain the brilliant people in their own country.

Now I have some comments about what you call virtual universities, or open universities. These will ultimately qualify this is the age of technology and virtual universities or open universities or many uncontrolled universities will come. But I am slightly worried about the quality and standard of education in these universities. We have some universities in the States in the West Coast where I see all of a sudden some of our colleagues come over and say that he has been awarded a degree in lifetime activities, that he was a police officer or he was some security personnel. I think he was beating the students on the streets, and all of a sudden he got history degree.

Or we have heard from Russia, one of our colleagues he sent an application form for admission - and he was given a PhD - saying that your application is good enough to get a PhD.

Now I am slightly conservative on this side, because I think a PhD or higher degree is also a screening mechanism. It says it is a passport to higher education, and it requires, as Professor Rosovsky has very well, person-to-person contact. In any higher pursuit you need person-to-person contact because there are some tricks of the trade which can only be learned by person-to-person contact. That's why the most brilliant performance comes down the lineage because father teaches the daughters or sons, others do not teach it, that is a characteristic of our sub-continental culture.

I believe that while we should encourage private universities, while we should encourage even open universities, and virtual universities, we should try to see that standard of our higher education is not lowered, that means the degree carries some respectability, and gives you international recognition. When I travel I see that with my complexion, when people think I should be thrown out of the business class or first class, the moment that I say I am Dr Husain they say, well you are acceptable in first class. So it's an international screening process and let us not dilute these things.

I know someone who has got a PhD from the Astronomical Society. I believe that higher education, apart from everything, should lead to excellence. In fact, the next slogan, the slogan of the next decade is going to be "Education for Excellence and Excellence for All". So just education for all is not enough, and so with a higher education degree, just degree is not enough, it has to be based on rigorous training, it has to be based on excellence. I believe that this will be taken care when you consider these things in later debates.