Getting the news of vaccine was a figurative shot in the arm for the human race plagued by an ever-evolving crown-shaped virus. On December 8, we heard the news of Margaret Keenan receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. The same day, William Shakespeare, an 81-year-old namesake of the bard, became the second person to receive the vaccine outside the clinical trial. We heaved a sigh of relief, thinking, "all's well that ends well'. Now the race is on to get the vaccines and get them distributed and administered. The sooner we can get the nation inoculated, the sooner we will be able to join the golden jubilee celebration.
For too long, everything has been put on hold. Meanwhile, we have pondered a lot over the normal and the new normal, reimagining the future in a post-Covid world. Many ideas are in the air. As an educator, I shall reflect on some of these ideas pertaining to the education sector that are being showered from the above. Given the randomness of these ideas, my responses are equally random.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently suggested that there will be a centralised admission system for all private universities. The policy makers are perhaps buoyed by the western model; they believe they can replicate what UCAS does for the UK. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is a UK-based organisation whose main role is to operate the application process for British universities. It operates as an independent charity and runs several online application portals to process applications to higher educational institutions. I don't think the UGC is thinking of the US model where universities and colleges encourage students to apply directly to the institutions of their choice. In the American model, the admissions decisions are primarily based on a student's academic record and applicable test scores, such as TOEFL, the SAT or ACT.
Earlier, the UGC suggested a cluster admission system for public universities to ease the hassles of admission-seekers. However, going for admission clusters for the public system depending on their ranking, locality and disciplinary orientation is one thing, but to have a central admission system for a sector comprising 100-plus universities which are still in flux does not make any sense. Only a handful of these universities are functional with a semblance of higher education. Unless the institutional infrastructure is in place, it will be premature to impose a central admission system for private universities.
There are still some investigative reports done by Maasranga Television available on YouTube that show how some dodgy board officials in cohort with different colleges are responsible for grade manipulation. One can literally buy a GPA 5 for Tk 2.5 lakh. Rigorous admission tests are required because there is no credibility left for the public examination. Engineering and medical colleges set questions at a very advanced level as they expect their students to learn more than they have done in their high schools. In 2014, following the Dhaka University "Kha" (B) unit exam, only two applicants were found eligible to enrol for the English department. The then education minister took it personally, stating that the DU English department had deliberately done it to humiliate the system. Nothing radical has been done in the last few years to suggest that we can rely on yet another centralised public system. The UGC is probably testing the water by floating such ideas, but abrupt comments like these expose the lack of coordination between the UGC and the education ministry.
In a recent discussion, published in the daily Jugantor on December 31, a former education advisor has pointed out that the National Education Policy of 2010 is yet to be fully implemented. The report mentions that the Education Policy did not spark any controversy because it was adopted through a participatory model where various stakeholders could give their inputs. I don't know whether the Covid-inflicted moratorium is responsible for the lack of coordination in many of the items hitting the newsstands now.
The education minister on Thursday broached a very important issue. She wants the private degree colleges to stop offering Honours and Master's degrees. There are 315 colleges under the National University that are giving such degrees. The general suspicion is that these institutions are failing to produce employable graduates. Once again, even though the intention is noble, the news comes as a shock. In 1993, the government allowed MPO colleges to offer Honours and Master's degrees. The decision was seen as a cosmetic surgery to hide the inadequacies of our higher education system. It was a popular decision to enhance the number of graduates; the local MPs used this to boost the ego of their constituents. Too many people have got involved in this sector in the last 27 years, so to stop the process without coming up with an alternative plan of rehabilitating the teachers, students, administrative staff and support services will be suicidal. To expect that all these students will now opt for vocational training, leaving mainstream education, is equally slippery.
The educational institutions have been closed for almost ten months now, although offices of all other kinds are slowly coming to terms with the new normal. Only schools, colleges and universities are falling behind. The health ministry, on the other hand, is telling us that children under 18 will not be given vaccines in the first phase, probably because they are resilient. Even the WHO recommends opening of educational institutions in places with less than 5 percent infection rate. There are many rural areas that are less affected by this pandemic. Can we not take pilot steps to open institutions with due caution? Can we not have some proper studies to identify those locations where face-to-face classes can resume in this New Year? A one-size-fits-all central decision may not be effective to combat this ever-mutating virus.
It's heartening to see that new books are being distributed even during this pandemic. This is the greatest New Year's gifts our students can think of. The interactive e-versions of these text books are equally laudable. I am sure our policy makers have talked to various agencies before making their decisions. But from the way these pieces of news are communicated and shared, it is hard to trace the process through which these news items come to the surface. The re-opening of schools, the streamlining of admission systems, the emphasis on the quality of our graduates, and the shutdown of a non-functional higher educational system are all good initiatives. The problem arises when these issues are delivered from a top-down model that does not take the ground reality into consideration. If we are to reimagine the future, we need a stocktaking of our present moments and the people who are living them. The lived experiences of the stakeholders can help us devise a local plan for the future!
Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.