BRAC University was established in April 2001 by BRAC - Building Resources Across Communities (formerly known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). From a modest beginning thirty-five years ago, BRAC has today grown into one of the largest non-government development organisations in the world. In recent years BRAC has extended its development activities to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Africa.
BRAC University was established against this backdrop. Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC was the main inspiration behind it. In its initial consultative process, led by Professor David Fraser —former president of Swarthmore College in the United States — and Dr. Riaz Khan —from BRAC—, BRAC University opted to follow the liberal arts tradition of US universities and colleges.
This decision posed certain challenges for the proposed university. First, liberal arts and the humanities had traditionally become the purview of a ‘cheap' education, where large numbers of Bengali students followed a course of studies leading to a BA at a college. Even at the universities, such as Dhaka and Chittagong, arts departments were characterized by huge classes and rudimentary teaching aids. Private universities honed in on the market needs of the country, concentrating on business and computers as their mainstay. BRAC decided to address these demands within a liberal arts framework.
A second consideration was how to incorporate BRAC's experience with development and poverty alleviation into the university curriculum. In the field of knowledge production, BRAC itself was seen as a huge laboratory from which students could learn and a new knowledge base could be created.
The third was deciding on a language of instruction. English was ultimately chosen, making BRAC University a new global hub for education. However, this put a large group of students at a disadvantage. Given the vision that BRAC was pursuing, these disadvantaged students were the very people the university would have liked to incorporate into its student body.
The goal of the University is to provide an excellent broad-based education with a focus on professional development for students, in order to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary for leading the country in its quest for development. Along with this, the university provides an environment for faculty development in order to ensure a dynamic teaching environment. Faculty will be provided with an atmosphere in which they can further their teaching skills and contribute to the creation of new knowledge by developing and using their research skills.
The University aims to foster independent thinking habits in students. With this goal in mind, each department debates pedagogical methods and introduces innovations. The English department, for instance, emphasizes making the study of English literature relevant and interesting to 21st-century men and women in Bangladesh. Post-colonial and feminist approaches are emphasized so students learn to even relate 19th-century novels to their own realities. Literary studies are given a practical application through courses on media, language teaching and linguistics. The status of English in Bangladesh and around the world is debated in classrooms, term papers and dissertations. The School of Business accentuates learning through case studies, and students are encouraged to think on their feet as they prepare to enter the commercial field in Bangladesh.
How was BRAC University created?
BRAC is a development NGO, in fact, the largest national development NGO in the world. It started in Bangladesh, but now it is working in several African countries and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other places . As a development NGO we found that the higher education system has to link up more closely with national development problems and needs. And the people who are coming out of the higher education system should have a commitment, an understanding of what the development problems are, and , a sense of morality and ethical responsibility. But the higher education system in general still doesn’t address this problem.
It is on these grounds that the university was founded. We try to design the curriculum and the learning experience in a way that the students have a different kind of experience, relevant to their life and surroundings. We have also set up some graduate level programmes in development studies, public health, education, and governance issues.
How do you connect liberal arts with social commitment?
BRAC University deliberately tries to build up a basic liberal arts programme. Every student has to learn literature, language, Bangladesh history, culture and society. It’s an urban campus, but we have at least one semester in the first or second year where students have to spend at least four months together in the rural areas. This is where a concentrated effort is made to really introduce the students to the culture and society of Bangladesh and understand it in a larger context. This is something special in our programme.
What is the impact of the BRAC NGO experience on your university?
We have of course BRAC’s own development experience which is quite extensive, which covers many different sectors like livelihood, microcredit, women’s development, health programmes, human rights, civil rights, education about rights of rural people, and introducing appropriate technology into rural areas. BRAC students are encouraged to visit the rural areas and there are actually group visits organized and some internships are part of the programme. However, is our faculty really committed to this? We have to try to get them also to understand and accept this philosophy and practice.
How has the university experience impacted the NGO?
We would like to see that happen, because in my opinion there is not enough impact yet. BRAC is implementing ‘Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction, an interesting programme which helps extremely poor people who do not even qualify for microcredit. The Institute of Development Studies of BRAC University is the main research body working with this programme to document this experience. We already see it’s helping the programme, in redesigning and reshaping the programme.
Another example is the Institute of Educational Development, which observes BRAC’s second chance basic education programme for children who have been left out or dropped out of basic education. There are more than a million children now in this programme and the Institute of Education is looking at this experience and trying to draw lessons for the general public system.
We know that one of the main difficulties for the universities is their relationship with sectors in society. How is your relationship with other sectors like the government or the private sector?
There is a great deal of interaction marked by a degree of ambivalence. The government lets us go on with our work, but we’d like to see much more collaboration, because we do not think that the NGO sector, the third sector, is a substitute for the government. Relationships and modalities of working together are developing. Government personnel are being sent for short courses and academic programmes in the Institute of Educational Development and the School of Governance Studies. Working together can be beneficial for both, but the mindset and the attitude on both sides need to change further. We can work together in many areas, such as health, education and basic services. We need to do much more together in these areas than what we are doing now.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcript of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.