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     Volume 4 Issue 12 | September 10, 2004 |

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Special Feature

The Best Years of Our Lives . . . Wasted?

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Everything in our country is highly politicised, and caught in the divides of our unhealthy politics are our educational institutions. Indeed, they are one of the worst affected, with general students caught in the vicious cycle of a seemingly unending, unrewarding academic career.

"I'm supposed to be giving my fourth (final) year exams this year," says Sonia Howlader Moni, a student of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka. "Instead, I'm giving my third year exams -- that too, I don't know when."

Besides the numerous countrywide hartals ever so often, public universities in general and Dhaka University in particular, go through their own bouts of closures. An indefinite strike was called by the JCD (Jatiyotabadi Chhatra Dal, BNP's student wing) preceding the national elections of 2001 and another called by BCL (Bangladesh Chhatra League, the Awami League's student wing) over the Shamsunnahar Hall attack in 2002 lasted around two months each. An almost month-long teacher's strike protesting the attack on Bangla Department Professor Humayun Azad was observed in March of this year. Last week saw the end of another indefinite strike called by the BCL protesting the assassination attempt on Leader of the Opposition and AL President Sheikh Hasina last month is being enforced. Of the four, only the strike related to the Shamsunnahar Hall incident and the attack on Prof Azad had anything to do with the students of the university.

"Students should not be involved in national politics," says Syeda Zohora Shammi, a third year student of Dhaka University. "They can fight for their rights as students, but not over the disputes of the mainstream parties."

Granted, the country is in a crisis situation and we are all affected by the political turmoil and increasing intolerance and extremism on all fronts. But what good can come of stopping the studies of the students? How does barring them from attending classes and giving exams, and forcing them to participate reluctantly in political processions, contribute to solving the multi-faceted problems of our ailing nation? One would think that it would be by educating our future generations that we would have some hope of better leadership, a more stable polity and over-all growth of the nation. But who are we to decide?

"We are at the mercy of the party-backed student organisations," says Shammi. "What is the value, then, of our own merit that has enabled us to be students of this prestigious institution?"

Which brings us to the other point of who really are the leaders of student groups in Bangladesh. There is doubt over whether many of them even qualify as students, in terms of their age, academic and marital status. Hardly any have the welfare of students in mind.

In our country, student parties do not fight for student rights but for those of the mainstream parties by which they are backed.

When the issues are student-related, the students themselves come forward to fight for their rights. And when a real movement is needed for the people of the nation, the general students have always played a major role as we have seen many times -- during the language movement of 1952, the independence movement of 1971 and the mass uprising against an autocratic government in 1990. But when the issues are selfish and biased, the self-centred, partisan groups impose strikes that do nothing but ruin the academic career of the general students -- of those who actually want to learn.

Months of disrupted classes and waiting to take exams that have been postponed at least twice and may or may not actually take place that year makes it highly frustrating. Not only do students become bored throughout the year during all the closures, but they tend to lose interest in their studies and the spirit to want to do well. Their minds become diverted towards other things, including part-time jobs, which later make it difficult to focus on studies at all.

Not every student has the opportunity to work part-time, however. Many need to finish their studies as soon as possible in order to financially support parents and family once they start working. For them, each month, not to mention each year lost, counts.

"It's worse for girls," says Sonia. "Men can take their time settling down, but women have to start long before. Not only do our parents become impatient with our never-ending studies and begin to pressurise us to get married, but we have to plan out our own lives as well. Building a career, a family -- nothing is easy once you're a woman past 30, especially in our society. As you grow older, your options decrease."

Students of the same age at private universities graduate earlier than those in public ones, she adds, enabling them to avail themselves of the better jobs ahead of those graduating later who may be just as qualified and deserving, if not more.

Age limits set for employment opportunities also restrict many students from applying for jobs which they could have qualified for had they not taken seven years to graduate instead of four.

It is almost as frustrating for parents who do not know when their sons or daughters will graduate and what awaits them in an uncertain future.

Most private universities are also usually more secure than public ones because of student politics. While noisy political meetings and processions have become an almost daily routine for frustrated teachers and students straining to be heard above the ruckus, many students of Dhaka University, Jahangirnagar University, and other public universities in different districts have witnessed violence on campus ranging from student cadres chasing each other out of class buildings and dormitories to police tear-gassing students and even gunfights.

Violence, or the fear thereof, on campus, is not restricted to students or so-called students, however. Early this week, "patriots" sent an e-mail to the Chair of the Mass Communication and Journalism Department, threatening to blow up the Arts Building of Dhaka University. According to a Daily Star report, the "patriots" -- who refuse to be labelled "terrorists" -- claim to be doing it "for a better life, a better country and an Islamic country" for the "future generation".

Public universities, especially Dhaka University, is a centre of all the country's hub. It is like a mini-capital in which everything, both good and bad, takes place. But, judging from the current situation, the meritorious talent and potential which are supposed to be growing within its boundaries seem to be overshadowed by the mini-versions of the different political parties and their various, selfish issues imposed on campuses. When will these institutions become the centre from which our future generations will radiate the positive thinking and growth towards the rest of the nation?


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004