A breath of fresh air: the University Grants Commission (UGC) has decided to allow public universities to hold online examinations. After a virtual meeting with the vice-chancellors of 49 public universities, UGC Chairman Professor Kazi Shahidullah told the press on May 6, "We have taken the decision to allow public universities to hold their exams online, maintaining quality and international standards."
According to media reports, a draft proposal was presented before the vice-chancellors of the state-funded universities who agreed to hold online examinations. The proposal includes some suggestions and guidelines to recover from the loss caused due to the Covid-19 outbreak. These include using creative questions or assignments on shorter syllabus instead of traditional question patterns and conducting exams through electronic devices that have both audio and video features, such as computers, laptops, or smartphones. The guideline will be sent to the Ministry of Education for approval. Meanwhile, the universities have been asked to engage their academic councils to formalise the implementation of the guideline after May 24, when the universities reopen.
The meeting did not say anything about the hundred-plus private universities whose assessment process is stalled due to a UGC sanction. On March 9, the UGC "requested" all private universities not to hold any examination amid the closure of the universities till May 23. The universities were earlier permitted only to continue online classes, while suspending all examinations and laboratory activities. Exactly a year ago, on May 7, 2020, the UGC charted a list of dos and don'ts for the private universities for implementing online classes and assessments. The sudden embargo on the assessment process created considerable confusion as teachers were told to teach without any mechanism to assess what the students are learning. Students who are already in the middle of an academic semester need to have grades for their academic continuity and degree completion. Private universities take special efforts in maintaining academic calendars and not allowing any session lag or jam to creep into their system. The toned-down requested ban on exams has now made session jam a possibility.
Conversely, the one-sided decision of the UGC, allowing one segment of higher education to resume examination with no hints of a decision about the other segment, has confused all stakeholders: educators, students, parents, and employers. Many of the private universities are coming to the end of their academic semester. If we consider the Eid vacation, there is not much response time between now and May 23. One wonders, why would the UGC, with the mandate of overseeing both public and private universities, issue such a partial guideline?
The instruments for assessment mentioned in the UGC guideline have been followed by the private universities in the last 3-4 semesters since the closure of physical classes in March 2020. These are standard practices and tested protocols in any remote/distance learning platforms. The question is, why did the UGC delay in adopting this decision on online teaching and testing for public universities for such a long time? Why take so much time to reinvent the wheel? One can only assume that the bureaucratic engagement of the ministry and academic councils will delay the procedures even further for the public universities. By the time students of the public system will resume their examinations, many of the private university students will be market-ready for employment.
One reason as to why the public universities did not pursue online teaching/testing soon after the closure was because the universities needed to ensure that all their teachers and students have the digital devices or literacy to take full advantage of the new mode of teaching. Teachers had to be initiated to different online platforms and teaching tools. The issues of accessibility and affordability loomed large. There have been some incentives given by the government with free education data packages for students and mobilisation of fund for digital devices, but their efficacy has relatively remained unfelt and unseen. The public system was particularly overwhelmed by the sheer number of students with which it had to deal.
In contrast, the smaller class size and the flexibility of decision-making system made the private universities embrace new technology with relative ease. Besides, they had the urgency to stay afloat as they knew that without this adoption of new technology, the entire system would have drowned. In the absence of zero finance from the government, these universities solely depend on tuition fees of their students. Failure to provide services to the students would simply mean that they would have to let their teachers go and shut down the campuses. Already, there are many private universities that have stopped paying full salaries or bonuses to their staff members. They are struggling as the number of students has dropped during the pandemic, affecting the financial health of these institutions. The state-funded universities, although autonomous as per the University Act 1973, do not have this added pressure of depending on the revenue from tuition fees for their survival. This allowed the public university teachers to be rather lacklustre in their approaches.
Is it possible that the UGC has just realised that the two sectors under its banner are moving at two different speed limits, and one system is leapfrogging the other? The public universities, especially the old ones, traditionally attract the pool of meritorious students as they are virtually free. The number of limited seats makes the competition in these institutions fierce, where each slot is coveted. Before the pandemic, these universities were enjoying prestige and social recognition. During the pandemic, however, the newer private universities have shown greater resolution and agility. These universities are hungry for success, because they know that they can attract better students only by being successful. They are willing to adopt technology to be global actors and partners. They are working hard to get international accreditation and rankings.
The UGC as a monitoring body is responsible for both public and private universities that are catering to 4 million students enrolled in higher education. It is the responsibility of the UGC to make sure that all these students receive the essential skill sets for a changed world where knowledge will be interdisciplinary with technology being its essence. Creating a rift within the two, or seeing them through two different lenses, will not benefit anyone. To pause one system while allowing the other to play is unfair.
One cannot help but think of the Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare". The overconfidence and the compliance of the public system allowed its counterpart to slowly find its way back in the race. The UGC, as the umpire, should ensure that the rules of the race are maintained. Circulars that are partial in nature will only create confusions, adding to the ones that we are already experiencing.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).