I had a senior colleague at Jahangirnagar University who was known to his students at the Pharmacy Department as an eccentric genius. He would often take classes for hours, ignoring the fact that the day had turned into night. He once told me about a top student who came to the class without his textbook. The boy got told off, who later confessed to his teacher that he could not afford to buy the book. My colleague gave him Tk 2,000 and warned him that he must not come to class without the text. In the next class, the boy showed up again without the text. He was wearing a new pair of jeans and a pair of sneakers. The professor asked the boy to meet him in his office, and demanded an explanation. The boy was in tears. He said, "Sir, I can read the book sitting in the seminar library. But the amount of insults I have to face because of my worn-out sandals and trousers is unbearable."
I know of many teachers who help their students on a regular basis. I once had a student who would sleep on the temple floor in exchange for volunteering as a cleaner because he did not want to get mixed up in politics for securing a seat in the dorm. I had a student whose father was a vegetable seller, who has now graduated and become a banker. We often say, a public university is the microcosm of a country. The only criterion that matters in a university, theoretically speaking, is merit. It is no secret that there are poor students. Our job as educators is to make sure these students learn to make the best use of their time at the university so that they have a sustainable future.
So it came as a shock to me that a vice-chancellor of a university, the guardian of the institution, has failed to recognise such reality. The VC of Jagannath University (JnU) snubbed requests for financial aid for accommodations for students by saying he was unaware of the fact that he had allowed such beggars to get admitted to the university. I shall spare my readers the slang he used to dismiss the request.
Even at the private universities, we get many requests for financial aid. In most cases, students do not have any contingency plan. If an earning member of the family dies or loses her or his job, their wards get stranded half way through their education. In many cases, we have donated money or involved the alumni to ensure the graduation of a student. The institutions cannot be very lenient for a number of practical reasons. But there is a limit to what we can do in our personal capacities. It pains us to see students dropping out because they could not bear the cost of education.
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the underbelly of our economic structure has become exposed. The financial insecurities became evident as requests for aid started pouring in. Many students have not enrolled in the coming semester, most likely due to financial reasons. Some universities are making large claims of their generosity. In contrast, we have seen students and parents showing resentment against the fees that are being imposed. Already, we have come across news of guardians and students being at loggerheads over the payment of tuition fees of English-medium schools. Some private schools charge exorbitantly high fees, and with the transitioning of education to the online platform, the stakeholders are now asking about the savings being made in operating expenses.
In the public system, such questions are not encouraged. Those involved in administering the system often resort to a power position to give the impression that education is a privilege. They forget that the students have made their way through hard work and merit. And the privilege to which they are entitled is guaranteed by the constitution, and sponsored by the taxpayers. The JnU VC's outburst shows a total disregard for such conditions. There is no shame in being poor, but there is shame in harbouring poor mentality.
As we are trying to solidify our position as a middle-income country, the time has come to change our attitude towards education. This year, the government has allocated Tk 24,937 crore for the primary and mass education ministry, Tk 33,118 crore for the secondary and higher education division, and Tk 8,345 crore for the technical and madrasa education division. The share of allocation in the GDP stands at 2.09, against the UNESCO recommended allocation of 6 percent.
The Daily Star reports that this year's budget has failed to take the emergency requirements into consideration, and remained very traditional in its outlook. It quoted a survey that predicted that because of the coronavirus crisis, the education sector will see a spike in dropouts at schools, increase of malnutrition in students impacting their learning ability, rise in child labour and early marriages. From an institutional perspective, the migration to the post-Covid-19 "new normal" situation will require massive investments in infrastructural development and individual support base.
The government, of course, remains committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It has already taken a few laudable steps such as free books for all primary and secondary school students, nationalisation of thousands of schools, creation of six specialised universities, adoption of an ICT master plan, need and merit based stipends and scholarships. Yet for the changes that we want to see by 2020 and beyond, the budget falls short in both vision and scope.
For instance, there is no special allocation to upgrade the status of our universities. The poor show of our universities in world rankings is symptomatic of our deficiencies in institutional infrastructure, impactful research, and value addition. Only Dhaka University, which will celebrate its 100 years next year, has found itself outside the 1000 club of world universities, according to Times Higher Education. Others do not even appear in the radar. Something is essentially wrong with our education system. And money alone will not solve the problem.
What we need the most is a group of people who really care for the system. If necessary, we need to bring back some veteran educationists who are working abroad with the exposure to the best practices. Pakistan and India have benefitted from this reverse brain drain. We need to engage various stakeholders, and listen to their needs. Our curricula needs to be adjusted according to the needs of the changing ecology of the workplace. We need to figure out a way to strengthen our skills-based vocational education system, so that the pressure on higher education is eased. Not everyone needs a Master's degree. It is not something that you do while waiting for BCS results. Why burden the system if you really do not want to specialise in a given area for further research? We need to check the temptation of the numbers game. Inflated pass figures and success rates can momentarily boost our egos, but they fall flat when they are run through the quality control system of the workplace.
Cosmetic construction of buildings and labs will not give us the quality education that we want under SDG 4. There has to be a complete re-hauling of the sector where the primary and secondary systems become the real backward linkage for the tertiary system. The public-private gap is ever-widening because money seems to be the only currency that endorses education. The private system (at least the better institutions) is under constant pressure to perform to attract its students; the public system, by contrast, is suffering from complacency.
When a VC of a public university looks at his students with a bi-focal lens that brings the rich students nearer and pushes away the poorer ones, we realise that there is a dearth of empathy. We need more teachers like my colleague I mentioned at the beginning: people who really care for imparting knowledge, people who really care for their students. Instead, we are seeing the institutions being run by people with vested motives. Often we get to see how public funds are misused or used for personal gains. A classroom requires a good teacher whose bare necessities are met so that she or he can fully commit themselves to the students. The reality is, we see hungry primary school teachers striking on the streets while digital attendance systems or CCTV cameras to pry on their privacy are being installed in classrooms.
The budgetary allocation for education is insufficient. Given the predicted recession, it is probably understandable. We need to at least make sure that the money is well-spent. At the same time, there has to be some policy to engage different organisations to build institutional partnerships to ensure that these limited resources are shared and utilised properly, and with complete accountability and transparency.
The cost of education is high, but the cost of ignorance is higher.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org