Knowledge based society: role of higher education with special reference to grading schemes in universities.

Recently there are talks of building a knowledge based society (KBS) in Bangladesh. This paper wants to discuss this issue from certain perspectives such as what we mean by such a term KBS and what is expected of us to move in that direction and what role universities can play to accelerate the process. Knowledge is defined as “information and understanding about a subject which a person has or which all people have.” What is information? Information about some thing is actually the facts of all varieties relating a subject. For example, let us take the case of ploughing land for cultivation. Traditional knowledge was to use a wooden plough with a metallic pointed head to dig and turn the soil when dragged by a pair of cow attached with the yoke linked with the plough. This knowledge and practice of tilling the soil continued in Bangladesh for hundreds of years till the slow introduction of power tillers and tractors in some places during the last two decades. Now days you will hardly see the traditional ploughing of land in the northern areas of Bangladesh. What has changed is the application of new technology (knowledge) instead of old technology. Why farmers have been changing from the old to the new method of ploughing, the short answer is that the new method is more efficient (low cost per unit of tilling). The similar evidence of changing dimension of knowledge can be observed in many other spheres of human activities such as transport( buses and trucks in place of bullock and horse driven carts), power based irrigation equipments in place of old manual methods), use of HYV seeds and chemical fertilizers to increase yield per unit. The benefit for this change in farming knowledge can be seen in trebling of grain production since 1972 while population has doubled during the same period. The rate of growth of population has been brought down again by the application new knowledge of contraceptives and medical interventions. Therefore the statement to have a knowledge based society is somewhat misleading. At any point of time people are using available knowledge to perform certain functions better. What is intended from the desire to have knowledge based society is perhaps to increase the rate of change in the field of technology and use newer knowledge that people in other parts of the world is using and to produce those newer technologies by the people of our country. If we take a stock of the techs that are being used in the country from land and mobile phones to textile machineries we will see that we do not produce may be not more than 10% of the new technologies. RMG the largest industry in terms of employment and export earnings perhaps do not add more than 25% value added after 20 years of rapid growth. Sustainable growth requires that we gradually produce more and more of the equipment and other inputs within the country and reduce our dependence on import from other countries. We are using millions of computers and mobile phone sets in Bangladesh. To get full advantage of these digital technologies in terms of increased employment and lowering costs we must start assembling them in Bangladesh. Why we are slow in moving in this direction is perhaps due to shortcomings in our education system that is not offering required skills (knowledge) in related fields besides the political uncertainly.

The second lacking in our transition to KBS is the minimal interconnection between our major production activities and our education system. Not only that we do not provide knowledge to our students in schools and colleges about our major industries such as agriculture, our education system has not seen the application of new knowledge in terms of teaching -learning methods. The traditional mode of rot memorizing the contents of a subject is still prevalent and some the more useful knowledge supporting subjects such as English language and mathematics are not taught at required levels. Completing education through rot memorizing is wasteful because after some time it is forgotten in most cases and the student may be left with some vague idea. Instead if a student did a critical analysis as to why and how and for what, that would increase the capacity of his brain to relate with current and future activities and new knowledge in the subject. This is the most serious defects in our education system all through its stream from primary to university levels. This has been recently pointed out by Prof. Yunus as failing to think “out of the box”. Another Nobel Prize winning economist, J Stiglitz also wrote on investment in education: “It opens up minds to the notion that change is possible. That there are other ways of organizing production, as it teaches the basic principles of modern science and the elements of analytical reasoning and enhances the capability of to learn.”. He also quoted from Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate economist who “ emphasized the enhanced capabilities that education brings, and the resulting freedom that development brings to individuals.” Reflecting on the rot memorizing that education in Bangladesh mainly offers there are lots of changes that must be made to make it suitable for the 21st century as one can easily imagine. Such changes also may not be enough in a highly competitive world as described below. We should not only strive to be a KBS because it is not sufficient to compete in the global economy. Our education system not only encourages rot memorizing it also does not ask for putting max effort to achieve the highest level attainable in a subject. We are still carrying the legacy of the British introduced system to offer limited education to few people to work mostly as clerks and support staff in administration. The awarding of classes, first, second and third, based on 60%, 45% and 33% marks obtained in public examinations gives an indication that candidates were not expected to achieve the highest levels after lots of efforts. This needs to be examined in view of the new knowledge available from the field of psychology that found the “anchoring effect” in decision making by people (Kahneman, HBS, Noble Prize winner in economics). In a classic study on the subject the researchers asked participants to estimate the percentage of African countries in the UN. Before answering the question they had to spin a wheel with numbers ranging from zero to 100 and indicate whether that number was higher or lower than the percentage of African countries in the UN. The wheel was rigged to stop at either 10 or 65. This was not known to the participants. On average participants with a 10 on the wheel gave an estimate of 25 per cent; those who got 65 estimated 45%. The conclusion was that they had taken their cue from the exercise of spinning the wheel although the numbers on the wheel were irrelevant. So anchoring or targeting higher levels seems to affect individual decision making on the level of efforts to be put in studies.

Many of us can recollect how we used that 60% as benchmark for first class in preparing for public examinations mostly by memorizing answers to a set of expected questions (8-10) that were repeated in some sequence year after year from a given syllabus in a subject. Was it like that a student who covered and learned 60% of the materials would get a first class and so on? What would be the level of his efforts in attaining that 60% marks? Certainly it was not the highest level as we can all remember from our own cases in the past. It seems there was not an urge to create conditions for a student to put his maximum efforts in studies as it was not demanded by the system. How do you explain the classification system that used to prevail here until recent changes to letter grades A+, A etc. IBA Dhaka University has been using the letter grading system since the start of MBA program in 1966. Statistics of those graduated from IBA about 50% failed in the program unlike other university departments where passing rates above 95%. Graduates from IBA will vouch for the level of their efforts they put to get higher grades in courses. One can guess why IBA graduates excelled in their jobs and moved into higher level position in many fields in Bangladesh. It seems achievement motivation induced in a in a good school, such as IBA, has had links with job performance in real lives. Records shows that about 50% of the students admitted at IBA fail to graduate although they are selected from a large pool of candidates through a rigorous admission tests. In this connection one of the researcher on language and history, Dr. Monsur Musa (former DG of Bangla Academy) said in recent seminar on language day why the British did not establish many universities in India. He said that after America became independent in 1776, the then prime minister announced in the parliament that they lost America because they established many high class universities there that spearheaded movement for freedom. That universities create awareness among the people of the need for freedom is clearly understood by us from the role played by Dhaka University established in 1921 by the British. Dhaka University was called as the giver of freedom to the Bangladeshi people described by a noted scholar, Dr. Serajul Islam Chaudhury, professor English of Dhaka University. The Americans did away with the British classification in education long time back and introduced the grading system that require much higher level of efforts to achieve higher grades. The assumption that underlie the grading system is that a candidate will put his maximum effort to obtain say for example A+ (marks 90 and above) in a course in which the margin of error is left at maximum of 10% or less. That means the candidate has learnt to apply the knowledge correctly 90% of the time. This has important implication for performance on the job in whatever field he or she may be engaged. For those obtaining lower grades, B, C, and D the margin of error in learning and hence applying the knowledge in practice is likely to be higher. In this connection it may be mentioned that in 2006 UGC recommended a grading system for all universities in Bangladesh giving A+ for obtaining 80% and above marks and it was reported in the press that only one out of 79/80 Vice-Chancellors raised objection on the decision. Currently most of the private universities are using a grading scheme in which A+ is awarded to those getting 90% and above marks and UGC is insisting on the use of their recommended scheme. Grading schemes are not popularity contests as

they have serious consequences for national economic growth and they should be based on scientific knowledge. To make our executives sound decision makers they must have educational background with high achievement motivation and less susceptible to margin of errors. It may not be out of place to conjecture why our executives in the public sectors are slow and less effective decision makers. Neither the politicians who rule the country nor the executives who run administration on their behalf have high achievement motivation ingrained in their mind set as most of them have had mediocre performance in their education backgrounds. Obtaining first classes with 60% marks and those with second classes with 45% marks can not be expected to be high achievers. In university teaching jobs these days four such first classes are preferred not required. And given the corruption being reported in the universities in Bangladesh the rot has gone too deep to change in the near future. Seeds of fast growth in the all fields of human endeavor are laid in their educational system and there is merit in trying to follow the American system since we want to move to a knowledge based and achievement oriented society. Huge investment is needed to change the culture of our education system to make it suitable for educating the future generation of executives and leaders to be high achievers. The private universities have started to move in that direction through the application of letter grading system of American standards. It is not under stood why the UGC is bent upon giving A+ at 80% marks? Have they taken any clue from behavioral sciences, such as the effect of anchoring on human behaviour and decision making that follows from that? Before such changes are imposed UGC should have done some research on the science of evaluation of students’ performance and their motivation to excel in later lives. . References; 1. 2. 3. 4. The Readers Digest and the Economist on Kahneman’s work. Making Globalisation work, J.E Stiglitz, Norton, 2006. The Daily Star, 17th Anniversary Issue, March 2008. UGC Reports and letters.