Taking a Second Chance at Education
"The pandemic started just days before my HSC. It was hard for me to decide whether I should study for the HSC or the admission test," reflects Samira Mortuza*, a medical college aspirant studying for the second-time admission tests this year, on her first admission cycle.
She explains, "Despite everything, I never expected to not get the chance to go to medical college. I thought I almost made it because I gave my best effort. Perhaps there was something lacking, perhaps it was luck."
Samira's story is one of many. Every year, students from all over the country join the gruelling battle to get admitted into their desired institutions for their undergraduate studies. In Bangladesh, there's very limited infrastructure to accommodate so many students. In this cutthroat environment, dreams get shattered for momentary mistakes, especially considering the fact that for many institutions, students can only sit for the admissions test only once.
In most public universities, admission candidates are made of students who passed the HSC and equivalent examination of that past year. However, most public universities until 2015 allowed HSC and equivalent graduates from two years prior, creating opportunities for students to appear in the exam for a second time. The group of second-time admission candidates are made of those who did not get admitted to a university or those who got into the university but not into their desired subject – who want to compete once more for a seat with the first-time candidates.
There are good reasons why most public universities, most notably the University of Dhaka (DU), have stopped providing second-time opportunities. Reasons range from administrative complications to the ensuing seat vacuum that follows when previously admitted students leave their institutions after getting admitted to a desired university or a desired subject. These reasons all contribute to seat mismanagement in universities that already had very limited seats, which is why most public universities have stopped offering this opportunity.
However, despite the stigma, the lack of second chances in admissions has its own dire implications. After all, aren't admissions hard enough as it is without us putting these hypothetical no-take-back signs on a student's academic future?
Salma Anika, a second-time candidate who got admitted to DU's Department of Applied Chemistry in 2015, shares, "There are certain expectations people have about a student. When you cannot avail that, and you try for the second time, you feel this pressure on you. Everybody wants to know that you got a second chance in your struggle, but nobody wants to understand why it didn't happen the first time."
Now finishing her Master's in Applied Chemistry at DU, Salma recalls her admission woes from the first time around, "My father passed away two weeks before my HSC results. I was so traumatised that, for a while, I could neither study nor prepare for the admission. Understandably, I couldn't succeed. When you have a mental breakdown the way I had, you cannot participate in that exhausting race anymore, because everyone is already too far ahead."
Salma provides a valuable insight on the idea that when life gets disrupted, it is unfair to expect students to still pursue their dreams.
Meanwhile, Labonno Hayat, who got into BUP on her second try, talks about why public universities in particular should provide the chance to compete for a second time, "We know that not everyone is financially stable enough to study in private universities where second-time admissions are allowed. If anyone has the ability and preference to study there, they should by all means. But there should be such an option in public universities for those who cannot."
Financial struggles, unfortunately enough, often dictate students' decisions when it comes to higher education. Public universities, with their low-cost and often high-quality educational facilities, act as oases for these students. The fact that they have increasingly stopped allowing second-time candidates makes things doubly difficult for these already struggling students.
"I remember once for my second-time admission, I didn't have enough money to fill out admission test forms, nor could I get admitted to coaching centres. My father fell sick before my first admission cycle and our family was understandably struggling during those times. I could finally start my preparation after my friends and high school teachers came forward to help," recalls Faiyaz Mahi, a third-year Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP) student who got in on his second try in 2020, about navigating the financial constraints.
"In fact, I lived alone in Bogura when preparing for my second-time admissions, as my father was receiving medical treatment in Dhaka. When I visited my father in hospital, I used to study in front of his dialysis room because I had to make use of the opportunity. I had to be resilient for my own sake," Faiyaz reflects.
Faiyaz's experience proves that first-time admissions cannot be the only judgement for a respective struggle. It was with a second chance that Faiyaz could prove his potential, and with no small amount of misfortunes set in his way.
Elsewhere Samira, who sat for medical admission tests for the second time this year, talks about her personal struggles in choosing to sit for the exams.
"After I couldn't succeed the first time, everything got messed up. Due to family pressure, I had to enrol in an engineering university. Imagine studying for medicine but ending up with engineering. When I brought up trying for medicine again, my mother was unsupportive. I know, even now, some of my family members talk behind my back. These things end up being unbelievably hurtful," she shares.
But Samira believes that it's important to study for something we're passionate about, "I know what it feels like to not get what you want. I know how much passion matters. So, there is absolutely no shame in trying again."
Similarly, Taskin Tanha reflects on her second-time admission test. She had enrolled in Khulna University's (KU) Department of Sociology in 2019 after the first admission test. Taskin says, "I got a chance to study Sociology, but I couldn't relate with the subject. I felt I wouldn't be able to do anything career-wise in it. I was also living outside of Dhaka, where I grew up, in an environment I couldn't cope in. I remember crying every day because it got so incredibly hard for me."
Taskin studies International Relations at BUP now, something she always wanted to study. She says, "I used to feel guilty thinking I wasted a seat in my previous university. In a way, didn't I break someone else's dream?"
However, she clarifies how important it is to study what we're passionate about, "Our education system is – university first, subject later. But now I know that choice of subject matters so much more."
When asked if the second admission test gave her any unfair advantages as most of the discourse on is centred on this issue, she vehemently disagrees. "Nobody studies the entire year. Even if there's any extra advantages, it gets lost in social and familial pressures. You constantly feel lost and unsure of your place and your worth," she defends.
Likewise, Ibrahim Medical College student Parsha Saiyara Ankita, says there are no extra advantages. Speaking from her own experience, she explains, "There's advantage in knowing the environment and experiencing the exam beforehand, but otherwise, you can't predict questions or succeed in the exams. Medical admissions also deduct 5 marks for appearing in the exams for the second time, so the advantages that you get from time, gets neutralised."
When considering these perspectives, it stands to reason why second chances, or lack thereof, are vital in our admissions struggle. In a system where one mistake makes or breaks a student's entire future, it seems almost too cruel to take away the option to even try again. Our human potential cannot be distinguished in 2 hours of examination, nor can it be understood.
As said best by Faiyaz, "There can be people who were unlucky like me, or those who had a misfortune on the day of the exam. When making the decision to take away a second chance, what are we subjecting those people to?"
This is a question universities around the country need to contemplate.
*Names have been changed for privacy
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