The students have been out of the classroom for around one and a half years. Where should their lessons start from again?
We must keep in mind that educational institutions have been closed from 17 March last year. That means we have lost almost two academic years. Coronavirus broke out almost before we could start studies for the 2020 academic year. Take for example a student who was in Class 2. The student hadn't been able to even complete his initial lessons, but was automatically promoted to the next class. Even after that the student remained out of the classroom for nine months. It is the same for the student promoted from Class 5 to 6 or Class 8 to 9.
A student needs a minimum qualification to go to the next class. These students didn't get that opportunity. So even though educational institutions start on 12 September, it will take time for studies to start. And then if the government wants to hold final exams, then the time for classes will decrease further.
Some educationists have suggested taking the annual exam in March rather than December. Would that help cover the losses somewhat?
I agree with the suggestion to an extent and the government has plans to that end too. There has to be a learning recovery plan. The problems in implementing this plan must be identified. All educational institutions will not have the same problems. I am in favour of four months, not just three. The students have lost two academic years. Even if a more flexible syllabus is introduced to help them make up, the first two months, that is October-November, will be spent in covering the lessons of the previous class. The next two months, December-January, will be for the lessons of the next class. We can do this effectively. Covid is not likely to go away any time soon. We will just have to adjust with the situation and continue studies. In that case we won't have to wait up till March.
The government has already decided to take the Class 5 Primary Education Completion (PEC) exam. How realistic is this?
I am absolutely against holding a public exam in Class 5. I was against even before. Such an exam should not be part of the learning recovery plan. Our students have a sort of fear about exams. With educational institutions remaining closed for one and a half years, the parents, teachers and students are all under mental pressure. Rather than holding the final exam in December, focus should be on learning recovery.
If we evaluate a student's standard, they will be able to prepare themselves for the next class. About the final exam for Class 5, I would say holding such an exam just within two months of the educational institutions reopening, is not acceptable either psychologically or from the aspect of education science.
How realistic, in your opinion, is the government's education plan? Actually what is the government's plan to overcome the crisis?
The primary and mass education ministry has taken up a plan. The National Academy for Primary Education (NAPE) has been given the responsibility to draw up a recovery plan. The problems in the plan are to be assessed. Then there are infrastructural problems. The teachers too are not prepared. Students have been given homework or assignments even before the educational institutions have opened. They have been told to hand these over to the teachers. The students have been asked what they learnt in television classes or other media during the closure.
The rate of coronavirus transmission was never the same all over the country. Before the emergence of the delta varient, coronavirus was mainly restricted to the urban areas. So was there any need to keep all educational institutions closed at a stretch for one and a half years?
That was extremely disappointing. Towards the outset of the pandemic, I had said in the media that we must have a specific education plan. We had information on the union, upazila and district level. There was no justification in keeping educational institutions closed in areas where coronavirus transmission was low.
At the outset, Khulna or Rangpur did not have such a high incidence of coronavirus as Dhaka. In the first year the transmission was very low in the rural areas. It was more or less safe there. Why did we shut down educational institutions there? It was wrong to just impose decisions from the centre rather than carry out an area-based evaluation. We could have categorised the country into three zones -- red, yellow and green. We may have to take such a decision in the future.
How have other developing countries, particularly in South Asia, dealt with this situation?
They are ahead of us in information technology. Their digital infrastructure is strong. Not everyone has television at home in Bangladesh. Not everyone has a radio. Not everyone has a mobile phone. A survey run in January revealed that the percentage of internet users in Bangladesh is only 28.8 per cent.
India started only classes long ago. We started it suddenly. The problems cropped up once we started it. Teachers weren't trained in using such devices. The children needed to be capable of using digital platforms. All countries including India decided on the area-based cluster method, closing educational institutions in areas where infections ran high and keeping these open where the incidence of coronavirus was less. We took our decisions centrally -- both in tackling coronavirus and in education.
With educational institutions closed for one and a half years, education is in dire straits. Did the government have any efforts to overcome the crisis?
The government did have certain efforts. We saw them holding seminars and symposiums. Depending on the situation, the leaders often said the educational institutions would be opening shortly. One month, two months and then 18 months passed in this manner. This caused great harm. Even then we saw teachers in various places creating sites and teaching the students. They didn't wait for orders from above. They weren't given any training for this. We have thousands of teachers. If one teacher taught even just four students a day, a huge number of students could have been brought under education. We sent low-income people, readymade garment industry workers, to the factories, but kept the educational institutions closed for students. It seems that the policymakers did not take into cognizance that education too is a huge industry to build up future generations.
About university level education -- two years were lost from the lives of the university students, particularly those of the Bachelor's final year and Master's. If corona hadn't emerged, they would have perhaps finished their education and started their careers.
This is a natural calamity, a global pandemic. So we can't look at it as two years lost from the students' lives. The government has extended the age ceiling for civil service by 21 months in order to make up for the losses. It can be extended by another 6 months, if required.
Secondly, there was a great drawback in carrying on with online studies. There were legal obstacles. I have been teaching in online classes abroad since 2009. Those who do research with me, can communicate in this manner too. But the ICT act had no approval for higher education online. Even though the universities are autonomous institutions, the academic council cannot violate the laws of the land. The law was later amended.
Then it was said online classes could be held, but not exams. So there was a disinterest among students to attend classes. When exams were later introduced, almost all students attended and took the exams. We took up the make-up tests. But a lot of time has passed meanwhile.
The government has given an outline for SSC and HSC exams. Exams will be held on three subjects -- but not on Bangla, English, math and elective subjects. Many criticised this decision. What do you think?
I think rather than remaining restricted to group subjects, exams could have been held on six subjects including Bangla, English and math. The government decided to hold the exams on three subjects based on the groups, but if the students do not learn language, how will they have a base for their education? There are three groups in SSC -- Science, Commerce and Humanities. Why should all the subjects have 100 marks? Three subjects together could have 150 marks. The rest of the marks could be distributed for Bangla, English and math, 50 marks each. That would help the students gain knowledge in all subjects. I do not support absolutely leaving out Bangla, English and math.
You are a teacher of education research. What is the state of education research in Bangladesh? There are allegations that there is very little allocation for education research.
The allegations are true. This lack of research is one of the reasons behind the fall in the standard of education. Those who carry out research, the experts, think very differently from the policymakers. It must be kept in mind that the state is everyone's. Just as it belongs to the bureaucrats and policymakers, it also belongs to the educationists and researchers. Everyone aims at the country's development and people's welfare. Unfortunately there is almost no allocation for education research. It is less than one per cent in Dhaka University. We have to look overseas for funds because the university has no research fund.
In universities abroad, there are two types of teachers -- researcher teachers and instructor teachers. The teachers involved in research have less pressure to teach. The data and findings which the university teachers get through their research, are used by the government's policymakers to formulate policies on the respective issues. That culture does not exist here yet. There is no harmony between research and plans of action. Yet this is extremely important for the country's development.
Thank you too
This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir for the English edition