'Education gripped in an epidemic of incompetence'

Educationist Dr Manzoor Ahmed

Dr Manzoor Ahmed is emeritus professor of BRAC University and chairman of Bangladesh ECD (Early Childhood Development) Network as well as vice chairman, Campaign for Popular Education. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he talks about the extended closure of educational institutions during the coronavirus pandemic, the damages done to education and how to recover.

Q :

With offices, public transport, fairs, tourism and everything running in full swing during the pandemic, how justified has it been to keep the educational institutions closed?

This is similar to the question of lives and livelihood. Overall in society and the economy, livelihood has been given priority. In the case of education, the authorities have tried to strike a balance between the health of the students and teachers and the damages done to education. After the first wave of coronavirus, CAMPE and Education Watch carried out a survey in September 2020 on the situation and the way forward. A large majority of the students and parents were in favour of keeping schools open. Teachers and education officers stressed the importance of health safety, but most of them too were in favour of keeping schools open.

In light of the experience in other countries and the views of health experts, Education Watch came up four recommendations:

1. It would not be justified to have a blanket decision for the entire country. Schools should be opened after determining various zones in the bigger cities and other areas, depending on the rate of infections. The education and health authorities must work together for this and involve community representatives in taking decisions locally.

2. A specific plan must be taken up to overcome the damages done to education. Every school has to take up a programme for damage control with the help of the teachers, parents and education NGOs.

3. The MPO-registered teachers and teachers of other schools must be provided with support and directives about how to implement health safety and education recovery programmes.

4. The schools and teachers must be given financial support and incentives to spend more time and energy in implementing the health safety and education recovery programme. Improvements must be made in the use of technology and if necessary, additional voluntary teacher assistants must be appointed.

Not one of these recommendations were taken into consideration.

According to the educationists of the country, the health experts and UNICEF, it was not justified to keep the educational institutions closed all over the country for such an extended period of time and it still is not right to continue keeping these shut. But it is not enough simply to open the schools. It must also be determined how to make up for the damages done. It would not be right to think that if schools reopen everything will just go back to how it was.

Q :

The schools have closed down again now in the backdrop of being closed for about one and a half years before last September. It is back into the closure cycle. Wasn’t there any alternative?

I have already indicated the alternatives, but we did not proceed in that direction. Keeping school closed for such an extended period and then trying to bring them back without studies, just granting automatic passing and promotions, is pitching the students into a crisis. After the onset of the pandemic, the students have simply been pushed up by two classes without earning skills in language, math and science. It can be said without doubt that 80 to 90 per cent of the students have not achieved the basic skills that are required. According to reports and expert opinion, distance education, assignments and efforts to set up communication between teachers and students have not been very fruitful. So the students are totally unprepared to go back to the conventional method and resume studies. The teachers will teach, there will be exams and the students may even pass by dint of memorisation. But they will not earn the minimum skills or qualifications. UNESCO has said this will be the destruction of a generation unless speedy and effective measures are taken.

After the onset of the pandemic, the students have simply been pushed up by two classes without earning skills in language, math and science. It can be said without doubt that 80 to 90 per cent of the students have not achieved the basic skills that are required

Q :

Do you think the government has any plans to make up for the long closure of educational institutions for over one and a half years? They have granted ‘autopass’ for the HSC students. The SSC and HSC exams held later were on a concise syllabus. Surely this will have a detrimental effect on future education?

There seems to be no acknowledgement of the depth and extent of the damage being done, the blow dealt to a generation. Had the above mentioned recommendations been taken into cognizance, we could have been more prepared to tackle the crisis over the past year after the first wave.

It is simply not understandable why the majority of school students have not been brought under vaccination coverage as yet. How can it be so difficult for the students to be vaccinated in their respective schools? The country had been gripped in an epidemic of incompetence and indecision. After school reopened on 12 September last year, educationists again advised that the damages to studies be remedied. The recommendations stressed recovery from the losses that had been faced and to retrieve education.

The points included: a. To make a simple and speedy assessment in every school of language and math skills at a primary level, and Bangla, English, math and science at a secondary level according to class; b. To take up intensive programmes for those who lagged behind in these skills; c. To abolish the primary and Class 8 public exams; d. To provide support to the teachers by means of technology and directly, to implement this intensive programme; and e. To extend the 2021 academic year to June 2022 and to permanently switch to a September-June academic year as part of a three-year education recovery plan.

During the emergency period of education recovery, it is not possible to pay attention to all routine tasks. Work on reforming the new curriculum must be put on hold for the time being. The main attention of the curriculum and text book board should be to make up for the losses and to ensure the recovery of education. It is important to permanently abolish the public exam of Class 5 and Class 8. Public exams are not the accurate method to evaluate the merit of a student or a school, at least not at this stage. The Class 9 and 10 public exams must be held for the sake of certification and to evaluate for higher studies. A concise syllabus for an emergency period is acceptable, but it is not acceptable to hold these exams just for the elective subjects and not the main skills of language, math and science. It has been said that this decision will be changed. The education authorities must not return to the conventional system, but take up an alternative education recovery programme for this emergency period.

Q :

There had been a long-standing demand for cluster exams for admission into the public universities, but this time chaos was created over the cluster exams. How to fix this?

There is no end to complaints over the standard of education at public universities, the objectives, management and governance. All the features of bad politics are present here. Politicisation is visible in the appointment of senior officials, in recruiting teachers, in the academic programmes, in student management, in procurement and in construction.

Bad politics encourages corruption and inefficiency. The supervisory institution, University Grants Commission, cannot carry out its duties. There is a lack of efficiency and competence. There is politics at play here too. Good governance is being obstructed by the dual rule of the education ministry and the grants commission. The supposedly autonomous grants commission cannot take decisions independently or is not interested in doing so.

There seems to be no acknowledgement of the depth and extent of the damage being done, the blow dealt to a generation. Had the above mentioned recommendations been taken into cognizance, we could have been more prepared to tackle the crisis over the past year after the first wave

Q :

Online studies were conducted during the pandemic, but over half of the students were deprived of this. So how far have we really advanced as Digital Bangladesh? Is it just a slogan or does it have reflection in reality?

Efforts were made to use various methods of distance learning – lessons on TV, internet, mobile phone, recorded offline instruments, etc. The lessons didn’t reach most students on a regular basis. And even if it did reach them, there was no guarantee that the students would learn. As it is, we know that during classes in the classroom, most students do not grasp the lessons. In the absence of any other effective tool, attempts were made to use the distance learning method, but this has hardly been effective in the case of most students. So now it is being said that a blended approach will be taken up, a combination of online and direct classes. This requires preparation, skill development and investment. This blended approach must be taken as an ancillary to Digital Bangladesh and plans and investment be organised accordingly.

There definitely has been advancements made in expanding Digital Bangladesh and this is manifest in the extensive use of mobile phones and the internet. But we are not at the top among developing countries in the quality and reach of service in this regard. Also, more planned and dedicated programmes need to be taken up for the use of technology in education.

Q :

Online classes were more or less regular in private universities. There were regular exams, classes and admissions. Why could the public universities not cope?

Overall, during the coronavirus times, private universities used digital technology more than public universities. In public universities there was an overall lack of management and commitment which was manifest in the slow progress in using technology.

Q :

In recent times, several VCs of public universities have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. There are demonstrations against some of them and some have been accused of nepotism. How rational is the existing process of appointing vice chancellors?

The universities have been overrun with bad politics. The vice chancellors are the guardians of the universities yet they are guilty of corruption, mismanagement, inefficiency, in consideration and lack of self respect. This is not an exception to the rule, but has become almost a norm. Even after the education minister personally intervened, the grievances of the students at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology were not addressed and the vice chancellor does not have the dignity to remove himself from the post. Unless there is consideration at the highest political level to protect higher education in the country, there will be no glimmer of hope.

Q :

On one hand in our country, thousands of students are graduating from university every year, but not getting jobs. According to a study of BIDS, 66 per cent of the students passing out from the National University are unemployed. And entrepreneurs say that they are not getting a skilled workforce. Where does the problem lie?

There is no easy answer to the question of educated unemployed youth. This is a universal problem. Many say that the main problem is the discrepancy between the market demand for skills and what is supplied by the university. That narrative is a simplification of the problem. It is not only the educational institutions that are responsible for rapidly changing technology, economics, skills and supplying skilled workforce to the labour market. The business and industry sector and the regulators of the economy also have much to contribute. However, it is essential to improve the quality of education and to monitor the trends in the changing world which impact education. The overall poor standard and weak management of the institutions under the National University is certainly a reason for the high rate of unemployment of its graduates.

Q :

Every government in our country comes up with an education policy, but the downslide of education continues. Why?

No coordinated plan of action or organisational initiative has been taken to implement the 2010 education policy which still prevails. Education has spread over the past decade, but there has been no initiative to adhere to the main objective and strategy of the education policy. So no matter how good the objectives of the education policy may be, there has been inadequate progress for inclusive, equitable and unified education. Educationists feel that to reach the level of an upper middle income developing country, there is need for an overall review of education and skills development to take up a full-fledged education sector plan.

* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir