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Brac University Leading the Way

January 20, 2007

The city of masjids is on its way to becoming the Boston of South Asia, the city of Bishyabidyalays. A Indian journalist friend of mine on his return from an assignment in Bangladesh was remarking on the strangeness that is the private university phenomenon in Dhaka. Apparently, there are more than 50 private universities in the city. The number sounds as ridiculous as the lack of originality of their names (South West, North East, East West, North South are all names of Universities). Therefore, to say that BRAC University was my automatic choice of employer would not be a non sequitur. For “BU” turned out to be a very unique institution in several rather impressive ways.

Firstly, the whole idea of the summer residential semester at their satellite campus in Savar, 90 minutes or so from Dhaka, is unique. This is a semester in which many elite kids who are otherwise shuttling from their air-conditioned, servant-served interiors of homes in the GulshanBananiBaridhara tri-state enclave to equally luxurious private university spaces – are made to live independently for two months – simulating a boarding school or an American college town experience. I hear from ex-students that many went back home after the 2 months of living alone, knowing how to cook basic meals, do their own laundry, be more disciplined overall and emotionally independent. Not to mention the students got to party much.

The courses the summer students took were also quite unique. It was a set-menu: Bangladesh Studies, Ethics, and English Language Proficiency (El-Pro). Bangladesh Studies (which I taught) was a multidisciplinary exposure to the history, literature, folk-life, religion, economics, public and foreign affairs of the Bangladeshi state. Something else I liked about the course was a larger South Asia focus. The course on ethics was largely an introduction to various German philosophers taught by an aging Germanophile professor.

The way El-Pro works is that at the moment of admission, students take a test of proficiency in the English Language and are assigned a score out of 8. For the rest of their time in BRAC, courses ranging from basic writing and speaking skills in English to more advanced compositional skills are meted out to students depending on their level. And what’s more impressive is that thanks to Dr. Anisuzzaman, a legend of Bangla Studies at Dhaka University, BRAC U. plans to implement a mandatory Bangla language class in the same model as El-Pro. The idea being that Bangladeshis of this generation need to be perfectly bi-lingual and undermine the substantial divide that seems to exist on university campuses between Bangla-Medium and English-Medium kids. Of course, the divide is also a reflection of class differences, a harder problem to address.

Another high-point for me as well as for the students, were the numerous field trips that BU organized. Students, many of them for the first time (as was also the case for me), got to see various historical sites – from 8th century CE Buddhist Bihars (a Bihar was something like a monastery cum university) to World War II cemeteries. They also obtained first-hand, on-the-ground exposures to BRAC’s impressive micro-credit and healthcare services.

Before the end of the semester I attended a high-profile meeting among Brac U. administrators to set up on-campus counseling services. In Bangladeshi society, emotional and mental health are still talked about in very culturally-coded language. Mental ill-health, counseling serves and such are looked at disparagingly. Parents seem to regard such issues as superfluous at best – evil western imports at worst. As a result, I was impressed by Brac U. administrators’ seriousness in identifying stress- and depression-related problems in students and making institutional innovations to facilitate their treatment. The idea, still a work-in-progress as I understand, is to have a trained psychiatrist teach an intro course in psychology and build confidence with students thus. The lecturer cum psychiatrist can thus warm up to students and identify better those in need of help.

Brac University also runs a fabulous scholarship “Britti” program that targets the poorest of the poor families in Bangladesh, providing a stipend to stipend to ones that send children to Brac’s elementary schools. After which, there is some talent-spotting, and many kids are paid to continue on to secondary school. If they continue to do well, Brac University admits them with full scholarships. This level of sustained financial support and mentoring is also unique. Certainly gives the for-profit enterprise an ideological edge that seems unsurprisingly lacking in the cash-cows that are the other private universities in Dhaka. Lastly, the admissions committee has a quota and greater scholarship arrangements for girl students, ensuring equitable gender distribution on campus.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2007 5:05 am

    This is the first time that I read the Addafication and I was impressed by the article on BRAC University focusing on our Residential Semester. Yes, it is a unique feature of BRACU. The article was well written. The writer understood the Residential Semester quite well. He also made good contribution to the students at the Residential Semester. I would like to congratulate and thank the writer.

    Salehuddin Ahmed
    Pro-Vice Chancellor
    BRAC University
    Dhaka, Bangladesh
    February 20, 2007

  2. A Survivor of TARC, Savar permalink
    February 26, 2007 1:13 pm

    BRAC Uni is one of the better, if not best, private universities in Bangladesh at the moment. It has unique features, ELPRO, a residential semester and the tendency to not adopt a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards students.
    The unique features meant to breed talent are however, I’m afraid, killing a lot of talent.
    ELPRO is meant to improve students’ English and even the students know they need improvement. However, of late, BRAC Uni’s policy of taking in students possessing a particular proficiency in English has led to numerous students of top quality being turned down, simply because they chose to study in the official language, Bangla. A common grievance that floated to my ears as I walked amongst some freshmen. ELPRO needs to improve and soon, lest BRAC Uni become a beehive of ‘English proficient’ students striving to improve their English further (how much of English does one need anyway?)
    The bright idea that led to the Residential Semester at TARC, Savar, should have stayed a bright idea for much, much longer. It does try to improve students’ attitude towards life, make them more aware of their country and all that, but it ended up doing NOTHING. I know, I was there and saw 187 (minus , say 5 others) poor kids suffer without knowing what it is that they are doing there, except when it was time to party, everyone did. When it was time to wake up, everyone did, whether they wanted to or not. When it was time to eat, everyone did or kept fast for a day. I wonder if anyone can explain to those 180-odd souls the benefits of such a lifestyle. I wonder if the students realised that the two-month confinement there could have been used so much more productively. I wonder if the university realises that the underlying reasons for having the Residential Semester are being lost on over 95% of the students being sent there. I wonder when the university will wake up to this fact and decide to either improve the programme or scrap it all together.
    I don’t hate this place, I love my university, which is why I would like people to read this and come here with the view that they will want to make this university the best, not the one of the better universities.

  3. pleasure permalink
    November 27, 2007 7:11 am

    I was in Chhayaneer and we used to give rag each other every night. We really had a good time in TARC. We miss it very much. When we were there, we said ‘Chhayaneer rullzzz….’
    Now, ‘BRACU rullzzz….’

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