Dr Md Ahsan Habib, professor at Dhaka University's Institute of Education and Research (IER), speaks in an interview with Prothom Alo about the prevailing scandal over the HSC examination papers and the overall state of education in the country.

There has been quite a scandal over the HSC examination papers this year, with allegations of communally instigative questions and even a personal attack against a popular writer. How do you view all this?

Conventional questions and creative questions are not one and the same. Anyone can draw up conventional questions. But teachers need to be trained to draw up creative questions. They have to be prepared. The government introduced the creative method, but did not carry out the tasks that go with this. There was some cluster training initiatives. Those who received training initially, trained the others. So actually at the grassroots, the teachers were not trained properly. In drawing up the questions, social circumstances must be taken into consideration along with the age of the students a moral sense. This wasn't followed. As for the question that attacked a certain writer, I cannot say whether there was any motive behind this. In many instances, the teachers draw up the questions in a hurry, creating random questions. This is a sheer lack of responsibility. There were controversies about creative questions in the past too.

The problems are not in the creative questions alone. The entire education system is in a mess.

It must be seen who are being appointed as teachers. In general, when someone doesn't get any other job, they become a teacher. Merit should be a priority in all professions. This calls for appropriate wages and benefits. And if one is a good student doesn't necessarily mean one will be a good teacher. It must be seen whether a candidate has a penchant for teaching. Those with an academic bent of mind should come to the teaching profession. But we notice that those who are academically backward are the ones who are taking up teaching.

Questions loom large over the creative method. It had been said that this system has been introduced to develop students' creativity. Has that been effective?

Our acquired knowledge had been dependent on textbooks. We had been encouraging students to the rote method of memorisation. The questions were designed in that manner too. The teachers would even underline various paragraphs in the textbooks to indicate where the answers of the questions were. So it was actually essential to have a creative method or creative questions. The questions are in four steps. In the last step the students have to display what they have learnt. There are guidelines for this too. But if the teachers themselves do not understand the matter, how can they set questions for the students properly?

How can this situation be overcome?

Research has indicated that there are two tasks required to improve the standard of education. Firstly, training the teachers and appointing those who are interested in the profession. I work with education psychology. There are various questions by which it can be ascertained whether a person is actually interested in the teaching profession. This must be carried out if the standard of education is to be improved. Presently when teachers are to be recruited, their general knowledge and knowledge of the subjects to be taught are assessed.

You all carry out research on education. Do those in the education administration or those involved in policy making, take such research into cognizance? Do they listen to you?

They do not listen to us. There are lackings in both sides actually. We carry out research, but cannot disseminate this among them. That is one lacking. Our journals do not have online editions and so how many people actually get to read these? We talk about Digital Bangladesh, but the effort that is required to materialise this is lacking. There is a lack of resources too.

What would you say is the root problem of our education system at present?

There are many problems right from the primary level up to the level of higher education. For example, very soon many teachers will be recruited for primary schools. It is important to see who are being recruited. Then they must be trained. But the training institutions have a workforce crisis. In fact, it was in Prothom Alo that I read a report that over half the posts in these institutions remain vacant. So how can training be conducted? These teachers will simply collect their certificates without actual training. That is cheating right from the outset of their teaching career. If we want teachers of a good standard, we need to make concerted efforts in recruiting teachers, training, the curriculum and infrastructural development. Random and scattered measures will not do.

There are allegations that the government does not pay due attention to education. Bangladesh has the lowest fund allocation for education among countries of South Asia.

I would say the government is giving attention to education, but the measures required at various times are not being taken. Undeniably, allocations need to be increased. But more than allocations, I want to give more importance to leadership. Those giving leadership to education, must be qualified. Qualified leadership can ensure good standard education.

We needed a strong base for our primary and secondary education. Instead of doing that, the government is setting up universities in all the districts.

The government is setting up universities in the name of science and technology and that is needed. However, it must be seen how much importance these universities are giving to the specialised subjects. Prothom Alo recently reported that there were more non-specialised subjects being taught in the science and technology universities than specialised subjects. It is not enough simply to open up new universities. Firstly, it must be assessed whether there is a demand for this in the job market.

Teachers of two public universities have launched protest movements. In Jamalpur, students of Bangamata Fazilatunnesa University are protesting against the corruption, of the vice chancellor, irregularities in the recruitment of officers and so on. In Gopalganj, the teachers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology are demanding amendments of UCG guidelines regarding recruitment and promotions.

I don't work on corruption issues! However, as a citizen, I must say all sectors are rife with corruption. The universities are no exception. Knowledge and merit should be given priority over political considerations in recruitments and promotions at universities.

But political considerations are given priority.

If this continues, no meritorious teachers will stay. This year alone, three IER teachers have left and gone overseas. They had earned degrees abroad and came here to teach. When such talent leaves, it means the country is not being able to keep them back. This is a big loss.

Meritorious teachers and students leaving and going overseas is a sort of brain drain. Are you all doing any research on this?

On the occasion of Dhaka University's centennial a research was conducted, but this hasn't been published. The meritorious are falling behind, moving away, because of power politics in the universities.

What do you think about the UGC guidelines?

When UGC or any other authorities imposes guidelines in order to improve ranking, it first must be seen whether the teachers of the university have the competence to carry out those guidelines. They must have their work published in international standard journals. Then again, to write those articles, they will need to procure books and publications, they will need to carry out research. Does the scope to do so exist here? Dhaka University has a scant collection of foreign journals and books. It is even worse in the other universities. When we go to the rooms and see the condition of the students, then we feel such research will hardly be feasible. In a room where there two students should be staying, there are six. If they cannot have proper food and lodging, how can they concentrate on their studies? So along with guidelines, there must be facilities for research too.

Students who do well in HSC take the university admission test. But when the results are published, hardly any get even the minimum score. Why?

There are systemic shortcomings in both the public exams and the university admission tests. Our education system is still oriented towards memorisation. Whoever can memorise better, gets the higher marks. In universities abroad, university admission is based on a student's interests and proclivity. Over here, the university teachers may frame standard questions, but they do not give scope to understand which subject the student is interested to study. There should be an integrated exam, then two exams wouldn't even be required.

From an education psychology angle, how much damaged has Covid done to education?

Students were stuck in their homes for almost two years because of Covid. Now returning to school after two years, they are finding it difficult to adjust in the classroom. The teachers too are not being able to discern how far the students have been able to prepare themselves. A distance has grown between the two sides. Their behavior has changed too. Again, the students are not able to go beyond their textbooks and exams. We cannot assess just how meritorious the so-called students actually are. We can say they have secured high marks, that's it. Our curriculum has many things outside of the textbooks, but since there are no exams for these matters, the parents are not bothered about these. They just want their children to get high marks. Sports, debate, cultural activities are all an inseparable part of education. I think the system of marks and scores should be abolished.  We must break away from exam-based and number-based education.

A new curriculum has been introduced at the secondary level. Is there a major change?

The old curriculum has been cancelled because knowledge and science has increased. The new curriculum had to be set. We have changed curriculum in the past too. More importance has been given to knowledge, but the question is whether it will be implemented. In the old curriculum it was also said 'we will do our own work', but do we see that actually applied? Is there the capacity to do so? Every school is allocated Tk 100,000 annual to procure scientific equipment. Many schools spend those funds in other sectors.

In the new curriculum, the divisions of science, humanities and commerce have been removed from classes nine and ten. This has drawn a lot of flak.

I feel this is a correct decision. We note that those who come from the humanities group, have no idea of science. They take it for granted that they have no need for science. But whether they go on to study science during higher education or not, everyone needs a basic knowledge of science. Similarly, a science student also needs to understand culture, literature and the arts. In that way, the new curriculum enriches students of all groups. We want to build up a science and technology-based society and so it would hardly be wise to leave a large section of post-class 8 students outside of science.

We talk a lot about money being sent out of the country, but the exodus of merit and talent is even more harmful.

If the meritorious have the scope to get suitable work after emerging from university, they will be willing to remain here. They must be given work according to their area of study. The environment must be conducive to work. Merit must be given priority over political consideration. In recent times there has been a positive trend where many third generation Bangladeshis abroad are completing their education and coming back to the country. As for those who have grown up overseas, they are being given good positions in various institutions in the country.

Having foreign students is important criteria in university ranking. There was a time when Dhaka University had a large number of foreign students. Why are there no foreign students now?

Many foreign students are eager to come to Bangladesh, but there are visa and other documentary problems. A PhD student tried for one and a half years to join our department and had to face all sorts of obstacles. He finally did not get approval. We don't have to go through such a rigmarole when we go abroad for studies. If we can get rid of these bureaucratic tangles, many foreign students will come. They will get to know about Bangladesh's society and people.

What is to be done to improve the overall education environment?

As an education psychiatrist, I would say we have failed to make education enjoyable. This is vital to have a good quality education. Let me give an example. If you go to Dhaka University library in the morning, you will see a long line of bags. Everyone is studying for the BCS (Bangladesh Civil Service) exams. They feel they need to get good government jobs. They are least interested in the subject of their study. That is why I feel the universities do not need so many students. Give a lower number of students a higher standard of education. There is no use in giving students a perfunctory education.

Will the conflict between the teachers and the university administration and education administration be resolved or will it continue like this?

Those in the education administration and the university administration give leadership to education. They determine the standard. So if the administration does not give priority to politics, then their conflict with teachers will be assuaged to a great extent. An environment conducive to education will then prevail on campus.