BUET’s pro-vice chancellor professor Dr Abdul Jabbar Khan
Galib Ashraf

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) has made big leaps in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings by Subject 2022. BUET was ranked 185th in Engineering and Technology field on the 12th edition of the ranking released on 6 April while it was positioned 347th in the previous year. In an interview with Galib Ashraf of Prothom Alo, BUET’s pro-vice chancellor professor Dr Abdul Jabbar Khan speaks recently on the rankings and other issues related to BUET.

BUET’s position has improved significantly in the recently-published QS World University ranking by subject 2022. Can explain this ranking system and how it works? How do you evaluate this success?

The University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a directive to establish Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) in every university in the country. The issue of quality assurance came to the fore when the IQAC was established. In line with this, we applied to the UK-based QS ranking systems to be assessed as per their procedure. Many Bangladeshi universities may not have approached the QS authorities as yet. They should do it. Alongside overall rankings of universities, the QS also publishes subject-wise rankings. As we are an engineering and technology university, many indicators of overall ranking are not applicable to us. So we did not emphasize much on the overall ranking. In the 2021 ranking, we were positioned 347th in Engineering and Technology subjects. This year our position improved significantly. We climbed 162 notches up to 185th position. This is a huge jump. They make the assessment based on five indicators-- Academic reputation, Employer Reputation, research citation per paper, H-index, and International Research Network (IRN).

The academic reputation accounts for 40 per cent of the total score. A pool of global academicians delivered their opinions on the academic activities of BUET. Universities can provide a maximum of 400 academicians to QS for creating this pool. BUET has submitted a list of 320 so far. The QS interviewed selected academicians from this list and from their own existing database seeking their opinion on BUET. Based on their assessment, BUET scored 72 in this category which is seven points more than the previous year.

Employer Reputation is assessed based on the reputation of our graduates working in and outside the country. The employers basically have their say on the quality of graduates of a certain university under this category. We had the opportunity to give names of 400 employers but we could give a pool of 190 employers. Based on their opinions BUET scored 90, which is a staggering 27 points more than the previous year. This gives us immense self-satisfaction that our graduates are working with good reputes all over the world. We will give names of more employers in future.

Another indicator is citation per paper category. It assesses how many times the research article published by BUET was cited in other journal articles. QS takes this information directly from the Scopus database. Another indicator is the H-index which deals with the practical application of the published articles. We did well in both of these criteria.

The International Research Network (IRN) indicator has been introduced this year. It assesses how much collaborative research we are doing with universities and industries abroad. We scored 36 on this indicator and there is room for improvement in this field. Recently we have signed 10 MoUs. We hope to do far better in this category in future.

In total, our score was 72.5, which is 9 points more than the previous year.

Was this success a happenstance or a manifestation of the effort of the BUET administration? What specific steps helped BUET make such a big stride in this ranking?

BUET kept running its academic activities in full swing despite the extent of the severity of Coronavirus. In around two years of Corona, we completed 3 academic terms while we can complete 3 and a half terms in normal time. So the assessors valued this success. To continue academic activities during the lockdowns, we extended interest-free loans to teachers and students (those who needed) of BUET from our own funds to buy logistics, equipment and even internet data. In total, we outlaid a loan of around Tk 35 million (3.5 crore) to run our academic activities smoothly. This was a very positive move. During the Corona period, we launched 3 new faculties after 4 decades. Another massive challenge was holding the admission tests in times of Corona. We were very sincere to keep the legacy and reputation of the BUET admission test intact since there were no direct HSC exams due to Corona. Through a rigorous process, we took the admission test. As in-person assessment of answer sheets of admission seekers was not possible, we innovated software where teachers evaluated the students on-screen. In this process, the evaluation was possible in a quicker time and without negotiating with the quality. Also, we have taken steps to attach foreign teachers to BUET’s postgraduate level. The finance committee of the university has already approved the budget for this end. This will enhance the quality of education in BUET and the response to the initiative is very positive.

Our BUET alumni working in different foreign universities have also shown immense interest to be part of this initiative. To increase collaborative research, we established Research and Innovation Centre for Science and Engineering (RISE) which will also incubate new innovations and research. We are doing many works through the RISE. We have designed many new courses eyeing the fourth industrial revolution, SDG goals and Vision 2041. This information has been spread all over and all these contributed to our academic reputation, so our success is not a happenstance but rather a manifestation of our effort.

Many people don’t want to give much importance to rankings of university. What will you say about it? Do rankings really matter?

Many people want to say ranking is of no importance. They maintain that if a university targets to become a centre of excellence it will automatically improve in ranking. But, ranking surely creates a positive impression about the university. In the QS ranking by subject, there are many countries where not even a single university is ranked better than BUET. This list includes countries such as UAE, Oman, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. When our position improves in a well-recognised global ranking, students from these countries would be interested to come to BUET. Even we can get students from Indian seven sisters/ northeastern states. And we are working to bring more international students and engaging with embassies of various countries to this end.

Personally, it gave me immense pleasure that the University of Strathclyde in the UK, where I had my PhD under a commonwealth scholarship, was below (193rd) the BUET in the QS ranking in the engineering and technology category. Over 20 (21) universities in the UK and many universities in the USA (47) are behind us the BUET in the ranking. So these matters are bound to automatically create a positive vibe among all.

While we bask in the success of BUET in recent QS ranking by subject, we can also note that BUET’s position slipped 200 places to 1201+ in Times Higher Education world university rankings 2022 published in September last year and remained static at 800-1000 for last four year in QS World University Rankings. Why does BUET lag behind in these two rankings?

We are not collaborating that much with Times Higher Education ranking authorities since many of their criteria are not much applicable to us. There are hundreds of ranking systems and so we are focusing on the QS ranking by subjects now. And since BUET is a specialised university, the overall rankings, as I have already told you, are also appropriate ones for us.

Do you have any specific cell working on ranking?

Yes, the Institutional Quality Assurance Cell is working on it.

Student politics has been banned on the BUET campus since the tragic murder of Abrar Fahad. What is the fallout of this decision for the BUET?

We don’t think banning student politics hurts BUET in any way. Rather it’s very conducive to the academic environment we need here. We don’t need student politics under the banner of political organisations on our campus. When we were students, Engineering University Central Students' Union (EUCSU) was functional. According to our ordinance, there must be representatives of EUCSU. There should be EUCSU and hall union representatives who will have their say to the administration on behalf of the students but these representatives must be non-political.

So do you have any plan to hold EUCSU or hall union polls?

We would consider it if such demand comes from the students. We don’t have any qualms about holding the elections since we think there are numerous positivities of elected student unions. I was an elected hall union representative of EUCSU myself. But the demands have to come from the students, and then we would give a thought about it.

How do you communicate with the students in absence of elected representatives? Doesn’t a communication gap exist between the students and the administration?

Mainly we communicate through class representatives but it’s true that their purview is a bit limited. Also, we have many clubs such as debating society, photography club, music club, blood donation club, career club and sports club and so on under the Directorate of Students Welfare. Students can take part in extracurricular activities through these clubs. But I think engaging in hall union activities helps build a leadership trait among the students which can help them be good organisers.

After Abrar’s death, we heard some cringing accounts of ragging and other forms of oppression of general students by their fellow students. Do you think the BUET has learnt the lesson to avert the recurrence of such heinous acts?

As a teacher, you would never want to see such a sad incident. I am sure such an incident would not happen again on our campus. We have taken many measures including the installation of access-control gates in every residential hall and emergency alarm systems on every floor of residential halls. Apart from strengthening the vigilance of hall authorities, we are also raising awareness among the students.

Let’s move on to a different issue. Lately, we have seen much discussion about a trend of more and more students of engineering or medical background preferring BCS general cadres such as foreign cadre, administration cadre or police cadre. As you were directly involved with the BCS recruitment process as a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC) for five years, how do see this trend?

Yes, this debate has been there for quite some time now. Before we jump into the debate, we have to ponder over some factors. Firstly, you have to see how many of the engineering and technology graduates are joining the civil service. I think the percentage is still less than 10. But a question may arise whether even this percentage should go to the general cadre after graduating from a specialised background. I think everybody wants to join a job which is relevant to his/ her educational background. But do we have that chance? For example, every year 200 students graduate from the Civil Engineering department of BUET but do we have that many posts in the civil engineering department-related cadre? No. So, posts have to be created in technical cadres. This is the responsibility of the government. We need more technical cadres to meet the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

Secondly, there should be an equilibrium of facilities among the officials of all cadres. It cannot be a wholesome practice that officials of a certain cadre service would enjoy all the perks and the rest will just stare. When a certain cadre enjoys everything and the rest of the 25 cadres feel deprived, then many intra-cadre problems will arise. Also, the meritorious students would jostle to go to that specific cadre. Officials of cadres such as health, education or engineering do not get deserved promotions for years but administration cadres get promotions even if there are not adequate posts. So the cadre service is in disarray. The government should ensure equal opportunity for all to stop the mad rush toward some specific cadres.

Every year a lot of students of BUET go abroad for higher studies, especially in the USA and they are doing quite well in their respective fields. But why don’t we get the likes of Satya Nadella or Sundar Pichai who graduated from India and rose to the highest ranks of Microsoft and Google? What skills do our graduates lack?

I think we lack the knowledge of soft skills. To become CEO or CTO of globally acclaimed organisations, we must impart more soft skills. We don’t have a lack of qualified graduates but we need to bring some changes in mindset. Diversification of knowledge is a must and now we are trying to impart those skills to our graduates.

How can BUET do more impactful research? Is the current research allocation BUET get sufficient?

Well, the total budget of our university was Tk 2.4 billion (240 crores) in last year and we got a meagre Tk 34 million (3.4 crore) as research allocation. This is not even 2 per cent of the total budget. Almost 80 per cent of our total budget is spent on salary, allowance and pension. I think this is the scenario of all public universities in Bangladesh. Older universities also have to spend a big amount on maintenance. I have already told you that we spend our own funds on research. But we need more funds to achieve the desired momentum we in BUET seek. Bangladesh has been spending gigantic amount of money on mega projects. I want to draw the attention of the government high-up that can the BUET itself be taken as a megaproject? You can include other universities with the project too. The government can invest Tk 1 billion (100 crore) every year for five years in the research sector in BUET under this project and see the change we can bring. Just give us Tk 5 billion for five years and see the change yourself. I bet the result would be astounding for the country.

Can you elaborate what can the outcome be if BUET gets the desired amount of funds for research?

Our resources are invaluable. We just need funds. If Tk 1 billion is not possible, spend half of it. Just increase our yearly research allocation to Tk 500 million (50 crores) and BUET will be among the top 50 universities of the world. Give us this amount for research, and we will be able to provide amazing returns. With this amount, we would be able to give numerous fellowships, do collaborative research and we would be able to accommodate a hundred PhD researchers.

Another important factor is chance for industry placement. Those who will do PhD here must be offered lucrative places in local industries. If we can do that, there would be a reverse brain drain. Many with foreign PhD will come back if they get a good chance in Bangladeshi industries. Industries should put more emphasis on quality research. A university cannot go forward with excellence in just undergrad level; rather equal importance should be given to post-graduation and doctoral research.

BUET has very strong alumni. How can they contribute in BUET’s development?

Our networking with alumni had not been that strong. But we have started working on it lately. Current administration has been working in forming hall-based alumni association. Alumni are the main strength of any university. Former students provide huge grants to foreign universities. We failed to develop this practice but the BUET alumni are coming forward lately. Our ’85 batch has contributed around Tk 5 million in our fellowship programme, ’71 batch has given an endowment for our undergrad students and batch ’86 has been giving excellence award for research. These are very positive signs. Not only through funding, but alumni can also contribute in many other ways. We hope the alumni database would be prepared soon and we will be able to directly contact all our alumni.

Thank you so much

Thank you.