Dhaka University, the premier public university of Bangladesh, reportedly does not admit madrasa students in selected departments like English, Bengali, Mass Communication and Journalism, International Relations, Women and Gender Studies, and Linguistics, no matter what grades students obtain in their admission tests. However, this discrimination goes beyond the admission procedures in universities; it continues during job recruitments as well.
There are thousands of madrasas all over the country that run under the Madrasah Board of Education, a legal institution created under the Madrasa Education Ordinance in 1978. The board functions like any other education board in the country. Furthermore, the government spends crores of takas each year in salaries and infrastructure developments in these madrasas. In doing so, they seem to encourage students to study there. So legally, and in terms of the government's stance, we cannot, at any level, question an individual's choice of education in a madrasa.
At least three factors motivate parents to choose madrasas as the preferred institute of education for their children. Firstly, they consider madrasahs as the seat for learning Islam, the idea being that students become aware of their duties and responsibilities as Muslims. The second factor is a matter of convenience, especially funding. Most madrasas do not charge high fees as charged by regular schools and colleges. Often, everything, including food and accommodation is provided for free to students. Thus, families with modest or low incomes often send their children to madrasas. Finally, madrasa certificates are considered to be equivalent to those earned in other education boards and so parents can still decide the type of higher education their children should go for when they pass Dakhil and/or Alim. In short, madrasas provide an opportunity for parents who expect their children to grow up with an Islamic education at an affordable cost, while having the general higher education choice still open for them.
For many madrasa students, getting into a well reputed public university, which has very limited seats, is a difficult prospect just as it is for students from other institutions. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the types of questions set in the admission tests align more closely with the syllabus taught in mainstream schools and colleges. To ace these admission tests, madrasa students interested in higher education have an added pressure to deal with; they study their own syllabus as part of the madrasa curriculum and also take the pains to study the syllabus contents of schools and colleges not covered in madrasas. The fact that they are able to do this is an indication of how serious they are about their education. It definitely requires some skills to simultaneously master both types of content. Students who qualify for admission in top public universities, despite the discriminatory admission tests, do deserve accolades from university administrators and education policy makers. Instead of this, they are denied admission in selected subjects.
Again, admission tests are designed, arguably, to test students' understanding of 12 years of education in different areas. Anyone qualifying in these tests can be said to have displayed their success in achieving those objectives or outcomes. It does not matter whether they received full marks in Bangla and English or any other subjects; it does not matter whether they studied a particular subject in their secondary or higher secondary schools. What matters is the outcome of their education, something that these admission tests are supposed to test. Denying admission to those who have proved their ability cannot be called anything but an anomaly. Reports of madrasa students topping the ranking lists in different units and facing the same fate is all the more unfair and worth looking into.
Furthermore, these qualifying students are just a few of the hundreds and thousands who either do not choose liberal higher education or do not have the ability and/or intention to go through the process. Students enrolling in such a university are those who have expressed their intention to be part of the liberal education programme provided by these universities. Denying them admission in departments like English and Bangla is denying them the right to study these subjects.
Blanket judgments that all madrasa students are radicalised do not make much sense. While madrasa students are denied admission in a few subjects, they still can choose other subjects and find a place in the university with their supposed 'radicalised' attitude and possibly attend classes in the same room and/or building where these departments are housed. Thus, the only objective this discrimination serves is leaving students from a madrasa backround with a permanent sense of deprivation and prejudice.
It gives rise to the question: what sort of liberal education system is this that does not dare to reverse the 'radicalism' for some segments of students?' Isn't denying liberal education to a segment of population a new form of radicalism practiced by the so-called liberal education advocates of universities? It makes one wonder about the sort of liberal education being provided in the nation's highest seats of learning.
While I am saying this, I am not blaming all universities. The vast majority of public and private universities do not promote such discrimination. It is only a few departments, and those mostly in Dhaka University, that make this distinction in a way that amounts to a serious act of discrimination. Madrasa students have done exceedingly well in medical colleges, in engineering universities like BUET, in top ranking universities in Europe and North America. What if they also succeed in a few chosen departments of universities like Dhaka Univerisity? The nation can only benefit from this.
One may argue that madrasa students develop a particular type of political orientation that the stakeholders of these few departments do not want to promote. We should keep in mind that political orientations are created and developed in a society as a whole. Madrasas have never been reported as a hotspot of political activity as opposed to the 'liberal' universities which segregate people in different political lines of Chhatra League, Chhatra Dal, Chhatra Shibir and Chhatra Union. People study in madrasas without being particularly aware of their political identities which, as my personal experience shows, are by no means a uniform monolithic practice. Madrasas are a miniature of the larger society and closely reflect the national political cross-section.
Once, at a job interview in a technical university, I seemed to be doing quite well in terms of impressing the members of the interview board, until one member asked me, “Why did you study in a madrasa?” I could not be impressed with the query as it seemed to decide my fate, and a candidate with inferior academic credentials ended up being selected.
Luckily, the universities outside Bangladesh, especially those in the US do not care for which stream of education you choose or your parents chose for you. My brief experience here shows what they really care about is your knowledge and skills in your intended areas of specialisation. Diversity is aggressively promoted in US universities with no harmful impacts on the liberal atmosphere of the academia. I wish the few departments of our universities knew this and realise the significance of having people who may potentially have different opinions on the same liberal and pluralistic platform. What is the value of a university if it does not show universality in attitude and practice?
The writer was formerly an assistant professor of English at Northern University Bangladesh. He studied in a madrasah from class 1 to 12, and completed his BA (Hons) and MA in English from Rajshahi University. He is currently doing his PhD in English Studies at Illinois State University in the US. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org