BANGLADESH: Responding to global challenges

The Asia Regional Higher Education Summit was held in Dhaka earlier this month with a view to expanding innovative approaches to teaching, research, technology transfer and business development in higher education. Attended by senior educationists from across the world, the four-day summit proposed a range of ideas for the development of key sectors and how higher education could play a role in this.

The summit was organised by UNAID in association with the University of Dhaka and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. The first of its kind in Asia, the summit called for stronger partnerships among public and private institutions across the globe to face the emerging challenges.

Around 150 university presidents and vice-chancellors, senior executives of businesses and foundations and government officials participated in the summit. Titled Higher education's response to global challenge, speakers at the inaugural session listed terrorism, food shortages, energy deficiency and poverty as the major challenges facing the world - and that higher education and innovative thinking could help tackle them.

Education adviser Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, speaking as the chief guest at the inaugural function, said, "Degradation of ecology, population, rapid urbanisation and poverty are the major issues in the case of Bangladesh.

"It is of immense importance that the universities of Bangladesh get linked with those of other countries for more collaboration in researches and innovations... with public and private universities taking the opportunities of partnerships to achieve excellence."

Rahman said it was not only partnership in terms of resources but for sharing experiences and mobilising alumni of the educational institutions which empowered institutions. So far such initiatives had not been significant.

A key focus should be the ethical issue - that is, to uplift the underprivileged, he said, adding, "This is a bigger social support."

At the opening ceremony, US Ambassador James F Moriarty said higher education institutions made vital contributions to national and international development. In many ways, the American higher education community represented the US traditions of enterprise, pluralism, diversity, compassion and humanitarianism, Moriarty said.

In recent years, traditional relationships between American and European higher education institutions had expanded to include Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. This expansion included the formation of stronger and more prevalent linkages with multinational corporations, non-government organisations and foundations.

"I firmly believe that these trends will contribute significantly to reducing global poverty in the coming years," Moriarty said.

USAID Bureau of Asia Acting Assistant Administrator Mark Ward in his keynote address said American aid from the private sector to the developing world was now much more than that of government aid. This called for partnerships in terms of higher education and ways needed to be found how national and multinational corporations could be partnered for the development of higher education systems and research.

Thomas Farrell, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs, said America was keen to extend higher education programmes to Asian countries, including Bangladesh, to help them face global challenges such as food security, disaster management and poverty reduction.

"The number of visas issued to Bangladeshi students has increased recently," Farrell said. "We welcome them... we want to see more students."

The US may award five more Fulbright scholarships a year to Bangladeshi students in the areas of food security and disaster management, he added. At present, America allocates up to 20 scholarships to Bangladeshi students and sends 14 to 16 academics for teaching or research to Bangladesh.

The summit focused on four areas: food security, women's entrepreneurship, teacher training and natural disaster management.

"Higher education has no alternatives. The US, therefore, internationally develops programmes and facilitates individuals and institutions for better education and research," Farrell said while talking to reporters on the sidelines of the summit.

Dhaka University Vice-chancellor Professor SMA Faiz, who moderated a session on building innovative higher education partnerships, said the summit had discussed ways Asian universities and the US could strengthen partnerships. These could be with the private sectors, including national and multinational corporations, Faiz said, adding that representatives of Microsoft, Intel and the Aga Khan Foundation had already extended their support to tertiary education.

"The academics of various countries are sharing their experiences. This is a great scope for partnership," he said.

A participant suggested preparing a directory of the universities in Asia and the US to facilitate sharing of the best practices that contribute to excellence in education.

The summit ended on a successful note with proposals for linking higher education more with the growing challenges in today's world. The successful implementation of these plans is expected to pave the way for a better and more peaceful future.
* Mahdin Mahboob writes for Bangladesh's Star Campus and The Daily Star