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Did the government have no alternative?

The government had the alternative of continuing classes online, by means of virtual media. But there was a lack of proper planning to bring all students under this initiative. Various surveys indicate that 50 to 70 per cent of the students all over the country were not able to properly participate in online classes. They lacked computers, android phones and internet connections. This has brought to light the gaping digital gap.

The university and college students who earn money by coaching school students, can be recruited to coach the school students who have fallen behind in their studies. They, as well as the teachers, must be given a good remuneration for this purpose
Syed Manzoorul Islam

How can the losses to the education system created by coronavirus be overcome? What do you suggest, as an educationist?

It will be difficult to overcome these losses, but not impossible. Firstly, the spread of coronavirus must be stopped, that is, brought under 5 per cent. This will not be possible very soon unless all the citizens of the country are conscious. A roadmap is also required. Online education must be carried out properly for as long as coronavirus prevails. It must be ensured that each and every student has a laptop or android phone with internet connection. Teachers must be trained in conducting online classes. Once the institutions are reopened, holidays must be cut short. The suspended exams must be taken. The SSC and HSC exams need not be taken simultaneously all over the country, but in phases under the different boards. The university and college students who earn money by coaching school students, can be recruited to coach the school students who have fallen behind in their studies. They, as well as the teachers, must be given a good remuneration for this purpose, and the students must be given financial assistance to take part in online education. Corners can’t be cut here.

Our finance ministers consult with economists and businesspersons before preparing the budget, but do not talk to educationists. This indicates the direction of the budget
Syed Manzoorul Islam

There is a significant gap between public and private sector higher education. Students in public institutions are deprived of a lot of facilities. This disparity has become all the more acute during the pandemic.

That is very true. There has always been a gap between public and private educational institutions and that has increased in recent times, particularly in the privatisation of education and at the higher education level. The digital gap is becoming insurmountable. The rural-urban economic disparity that existed has been widened further by Covid. Social disparity has increased too. This will create frustration and will also lead to a lack of initiatives.

You have experience both as a student and teacher at universities abroad. In light of that, can you point out the basic problems in education here in Bangladesh? Is it the state’s means or mindset, or both? Why have we not been able to come anywhere near the education system that independent Bangladesh should have had?

Education can never develop and improve unless the means and the mindset of the state merge. When Bangladesh became independent, we lacked the means, but Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had a positive mindset. Inspired by him, way back in 1974 the Qudrat-e-Khuda education commission came up with a futuristic education plan. Had that been implemented, we would have gone far ahead in education by now. Yet today we have the means, but the mindset is no longer as before. The basic problem of education is, not giving it top priority, not seeing it as the best area for investment, not focusing on its qualitative development alongside its expansion.

A good teacher can make a good student, but no initiative has been taken to make teaching an attractive choice of profession. Our finance ministers consult with economists and businesspersons before preparing the budget, but do not talk to educationists. This indicates the direction of the budget.

Another shortcoming in mindset is the lack of a proper education policy or plan. We are more focused on mega projects, business and commerce. These are certainly necessary and we thank the government for the mega projects, but unless education is given more importance that these, we must realise that business and commerce will not survive when the fourth industrial revolution hits. We will not be able to scale the heights of science and technology.

And the allocation that is made also includes technology. This discrepancy is in the open, but there are many other hidden discrepancies that do not catch the eye

Our rate of education is relatively less than that of the SAARC countries. And even the existing figures are said to be somewhat concocted. What are your views on the matter?

Our budget allocation for education is just above 2 per cent of the GDP, where it should be between 4 to 7 per cent. Nepal, Pakistan and India are ahead of us in this respect. And the allocation that is made also includes technology. This discrepancy is in the open, but there are many other hidden discrepancies that do not catch the eye. Big projects are taken up for education, vehicles are purchased, there are foreign trips, but at the end of the day, very little of this benefits education. Corruption in the sector harms education.

In 2010 the education policy was announced with much fanfare. But over the past 10 years, there have been no changes in the education sector. Who is responsible, the political leadership or bureaucracy?

Both, as well as various teachers’ associations, and a large section of educationists and civil society who could have mobilised a strong movement to implement the education policy. They are more interested in enlisting themselves in party politics. Certain reactionary quarters had objections to the 2010 education policy and changes were made, taking their objections into cognisance. Even so, if the policy was implemented, there could have been qualitative changes to education. The reason why this has become inert is that education is not a top national priority. A strategic plan has even been drawn up for higher education, but that lies buried under the files. All this must be implemented immediately or else we will have to pay a high price.

We are more focused on mega projects, business and commerce. These are certainly necessary and we thank the government for the mega projects, but unless education is given more importance that these, we must realise that business and commerce will not survive when the fourth industrial revolution hits

The government has planned to open up universities in every district. But there is a lack of qualified teachers and basic infrastructure facilities in many educational institutions in remote areas. What is more important, to open more public universities or strengthen the infrastructure facilities of primary and secondary education?

We need universities, but we need a specific roadmap for that. This calls for a 10 to 30-year plan, determining where the universities are to be set up, when, why and with what subjects. Universities should definitely not be opened simply under political pressure. Specialised universities can be opened rather than generalised ones, but not without a proper study of the matter.

We need to pay attention to primary and secondary education. This needs qualitative development. Emphasis must be given to technical and vocational education, science and technology. We must move away from running universities at 20 per cent capacity, from churning out educated unemployed youth.

Education minister Dipu Moni recently spoke about cutting down Bachelors and Masters’ courses at a college level, but how were such courses introduced so easily in these colleges? Who is responsible for such a disaster?

The reasons responsible for Bachelor (Honours) and Masters courses being introduced in these colleges, are the limited scope for admission into public universities, political pressure, lack of any proper roadmap and, in some cases, the activism of student organisations. This has happened during the rule of all the governments. The post-1975 change in political and educational mindset is basically responsible for this.

Alongside party politics, corruption and indiscipline has reached a height in public universities. Rajshahi University is still floundering under the after-effects of recruitment ‘trade’. The unlawfully appointed recruits are demonstrating. Then there are allegations that the vice chancellor of another university does not even stay on campus. Is the government taking any measures against those pulling down higher education?

Just because of a handful of vice chancellors, the blame is falling on everyone. That is unfortunate. But at the root of such anarchy and corruption is politicisation of higher education, certain teachers sacrificing ethics for greed and power, and impunity on political considerations. The government perhaps does not want to take any action against teachers, but there are political considerations behind this too.

Dhaka University, the university where you have been both a student and teacher, is stepping into its 100th year. This is certainly a matter to rejoice. But this university, once called the Oxford of the East, ranks low in the global index. How do you feel about that?

It may have been called the Oxford of the East, but that does not mean it was internationally renowned for its education and academics. Actually Dhaka University and Allahabad University at the same time were designed on the lines of Oxford’s educational vision. That university was also referred to as the Oxford of the East. The global index has been drawn up in the western context and so I do not have as much regret that we do not rank high on it. I have more regret about ranking low in the expectations of our people.

Perhaps Dhaka University will not be able to find a niche high up in any index due to the politicisation of its teachers, the harmful effect of student politics, inadequate budget allocations particularly in research, weak physical infrastructure and so on. I still am proud. We would have been deprived of independence had this university not existed. I believe if constructive criticism continues, everyone will take initiative and the lost glory of this university will be restored.

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

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