Dr Manzoor Ahmed has devoted his life to education. This senior educationist is presently emeritus professor at BRAC University and the vice chair of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). In an interview with Prothom Alo’s Assistant Editor Sharifuzzaman, he speaks about the state of the country’s education system during the Covid situation and the new challenges that have emerged in the sector.
“It will not be correct to open the educational institutions until the Covid situation comes down to an acceptable level.” Senior educationist Manzoor Ahmed was quite clear in his stand in the ongoing debate over whether or not to open schools and other educational institutions at the moment.
He reasoned, none of us know when the coronavirus pandemic will come to an end. In many countries of the world, they opened up educational institutions and then closed these down again. In the US and the UK, some are open, some are closed. They have the benefit of being able to take these decisions at a local level. Over here it is not possible to open up the institutions in phases. However, there is the hope that a vaccine will arrive by December and the spread of coronavirus will lessen.
What can be done about the losses students are facing in their studies?
“It is not as if the students are learning massively even if the educational institutions are open,” replied Manzoor Ahmed, “There was always the problem of not learning at all or not learning enough. That just has been exacerbated at the moment.”
The question then arises of the academic year coming to an end and how the vacuum can be fulfilled.
The emeritus professor observed that whenever the educational institutions eventually opened, there would be a challenge to face. That challenge would be to complete studies while maintaining health and hygiene. The academic year was an administrative matter and if that was shifted around here and there, it would not do much harm. But the students’ studies must not be affected.
A plan must be adopted to return to the previous routine within the next two or three years. And this plan must be implemented properly. At a primary level, math, English, Bangla and science can be given priority. There are some subjects that are linked from class to class and those must be given importance.
As to whether all educational institutions should be opened at one time once the pandemic recedes, Manzoor Ahmed said even if the educational institutions open, all classes should not run at the same time. One day perhaps Class 1 to 3 can be taken, another day Class 4 and 5 and so on.
Also, he pointed out, all educational institutions must have adequate soap and water for washing hands and also arrangements to check temperature. Wearing masks must be compulsory.
Many become teachers as they have no other options. Some are trained and many are not. Meritorious persons are not coming to the teaching profession. This profession has neither the salary not the facilities to attract anyone
When it was pointed out that all this entailed expenditure which all institutions could not afford, he agreed that there were costs involved and that all institutions did not have the required funds. However, it was not a difficult matter to overcome. The budget this year for the primary level was Tk 25 thousand crore. The secondary level had a big budget too.
Not all the money of the budget would be spent this financial year. There was no scope to spend it. “Life is certainly more important that development activities,” the veteran academic stated. “So the money saved from the budget can be allocated to the educational institutions as required. There can be a working group for each upazila, comprising people’s representatives, local administration, the local education office, NGOs and heads of educational institutions. If people of all levels are involved, the problem can be tackled.”
He pointed out that local participation was not given enough importance because the education system was controlled in Dhaka. The education budget should come from a local level, the budget management should be local too. But presently local schools and colleges are being established and buildings constructed all under political influence.
Coming to the pragmatic aspects on online education that has loomed large because of the Covid situation, Manzoor Ahmed observed that this was being conducted to a certain extent, particularly by a number of private universities. As for the television education programmes for primary and secondary level students, he felt it was perhaps better than nothing at all. “But the students are not really benefitting much from this,” he added, “and a large section of the students are being deprived. There are places where there is no electricity and there are families who have no televisions. These students cannot avail these classes. And online education at a college and university level has a lot of limitations. Digital Bangladesh hasn’t materialised completely. Internet connections are not everywhere and even where there are connections, these are often weak. Not everyone has smartphones. Even if they do, they can’t afford to buy the data. So online education is very makeshift.”
He felt that the government, the ministry, the authorities of the educational institutions, the cell phone companies and big corporate firms should have done something about this.
Other than the academic side of schooling, there was the matter of team work, discipline, cooperation and such, which are now on the shelf. How can that be compensated?
Manzoor Ahmed agreed that collaborative learning was an indispensible part of education. It teaches students manners, behavior, values, tolerance and empathy. Sports and cultural activities were also vital parts of education. All this has been missing this year. Once the educational institutions reopen, there will be a deluge of classes and exams.
“Collaborative learning is weak here,” observed the educationist, “And it has been reduced to nil during the Covid pandemic. The teachers have a major role to play in this regard. They should not just want the students to learn their lessons. A teacher must be given the responsibility look into co-curricular activities and pressure must be lessened on that teacher where regular classes are concerned.”
When it comes to teachers, Manzoor Ahmed feel that there needs to be fresh thinking in this connection. “We are prepared to create physicians and engineers, but not teachers. Many become teachers as they have no other options. Some are trained and many are not. Meritorious persons are not coming to the teaching profession. This profession has neither the salary not the facilities to attract anyone.”
There is talk of amending the national education policy, though it hasn’t even been implemented over the last decade. Manzoor Ahmed observes that the policy drawn up a decade ago had been more or less acceptable, but it was most unfortunate that the policy was not implemented. He feels much could have been accomplished if there was a policy to follow.
“The policy can be reviewed,” he said, “And updated as required. But where is the guarantee that it will be implemented?”
He felt that funds were not the issue in the failure to implement the education policy. It was a lack of commitment, a lack of will. He blamed the functionaries of the education ministry for this. He said that many of them didn’t have any full-fledged understanding of education and lacked experience and efficiency.
A developed country does not simply mean economic or infrastructural development. Even that requires competence and an improvement in the standard of education
“Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam or Indonesia were no better than us 50 years ago, but they are now way ahead. We should apply their experiences. We first have to accept that we are lagging behind. And we must have a strong commitment.”
About the lack of an education act, Manzoor Ahmed said it was not because of the absence of a law that the education policy was not implemented, but there was need for a law in some respects. A legal framework was required to establish rights to education. He said that note-guides, practice books and coaching centres couldn’t be stopped by laws. Studies had to be ensured in the classroom or else mismanagement would prevail.
He said that the exams were designed in such a manner that students benefitted from coaching and guide books. He said it was a disaster to have introduced the public exams in Class 5 and Class 8. “Unless the exam system is changed, the coaching and guides will continue to rule. The court had ruled against note guides. The education ministry had taken initiatives to close down coaching centres. But nothing could be done because the exam system created a demand for these.”
Manzoor Ahmed was asked for his views on the education ministry, the education directorate, the education board, NCTB, the education engineering department and the education offices at a central and field level.
He replied that the dividing up of the education ministry into two parts had created certain problems. The failure to take primary education from Class 1 up to Class 8 was because of the pushing and shoving between the two ministries and also administrative complications.
“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where they have separate ministries for primary education and for secondary and higher education. This is not a good experience in our country at all. Also, everything in education is Dhaka-centric. If a teacher wants to be transferred, he or she has to come to Dhaka. They have to go to the ministry or the directorate. This is not acceptable. The education policy was to decentralize the education system. That hasn’t happened. On the contrary, dependence on the centre has steadily increased,” he regretted.
“No one wants to relinquish power or authority,” he observed, “because there is corruption involved. We want a developed nation and for that we need to improve our education first. A developed country does not simply mean economic or infrastructural development. Even that requires competence and an improvement in the standard of education.”
He concluded, there must be education for all from Class 1 to Class 12. This requires holistic planning.
This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir