To affiliate or not to affiliate
Manira Akhter Mitu was a second-year student at the department of economics at Begum Badrunnesa Women's College, one of the seven graduate and post-graduate level colleges affiliated with Dhaka University (DU). According to her classmates and teachers, she was a studious, attentive, and friendly person. She used to help her classmates by sharing books and class-notes.
Manira was with her friends when they joined the demonstration to reform the academic process of the seven colleges affiliated with DU. One of their demands was the publication of exam results within 90 days of the exam. Manira had to wait almost eight months to know the result of her second-year final exam. However, when she learned after eight months that despite all her efforts, she had failed in three subjects, she was mentally shattered. She had already completed many third-year courses over the past eight months, but now she would have to re-admit with second-year students. Failing to bear the shock and the shame, Manira committed suicide on July 16 this year.
Her tragic death sparked outrage among more than 250,000 students of seven colleges who have been demanding overhaul of the slow, ineffective, and faulty academic processes for more than two years. They blocked streets in different places of the Dhaka University campus several times in 2017, 2018, and twice this year on April 23 and on July 17 after Manira's death. According to the protesting students, Manira's death is not an isolated incident. Rate of failure in these colleges is 80-100 percent. For instance, 25 students of Begum Badrunnesa Women's College appeared before the 4th year final exam and all of them failed. Sabbirul Islam, a student of Dhaka College says, "How can such a large number of students fail? Our exam copies are assessed at the whim of the DU teachers. We have to wait for months for our results. When we take to the streets in protest, they hastily examine our copies and publish such a bogus result. Every year we have to hold these protests to speed up our academic activities. Nothing happens according to the regular procedure if we don't demand classes, exams, and results."
To understand what Sabbir and his fellow protesters has been saying for two years, we need to go two years back. On February 16, 2017, seven renowned graduate and post-graduate level colleges of Dhaka city, namely, Dhaka College, Eden Women's College, Government Shahid Suhrawardi College, Kabi Nazrul College, Begum Badrunnesa Women's College, Government Bangla College, and Government Titumir College, all became affiliated with Dhaka University. The then vice chancellor of DU Professor Dr AAMS Arefin Siddique said at that time, "From now on, Dhaka University will manage the admission process and examinations of these colleges. Students of these colleges will study according to the curriculum of Dhaka University. This would improve the quality of their academic activities."
Ironically, this controversial step was taken in the name of improving the academic quality of the colleges. Before 2017, these institutions, along with 2,300 post-graduate colleges and professional institutions all over the country, used to be run by National University (NU). It was founded in 1992 to oversee the academic activities of the post-graduate colleges and other professional institutions. Before 1992, these colleges were run by Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong and Mymensingh Agricultural Universities. However, NU, burdened with overseeing the academic activities of more than two million students of thousands of institutions, could not ensure quality education at all. As a result, students of these colleges had to suffer from three-year-long session jams.
The current administration of NU has sought to reduce the session jam by taking exams regularly, which, ironically, had an adverse impact on students' result. Students of NU now have to sit for exams despite not being able to attend any classes for that course. Abu Bakar, a student of Dhaka College and coordinator of the platform of students of the seven colleges, says, "The academic quality of NU is even worse than many coaching centres. Coaching centres at least teach students in exchange of money. NU does not teach students, but takes money and just gives out certificates. This is why we want to remain affiliated with DU instead, but in a more effective way."
DU, however, could not perform any better than NU. Already burdened with more than 30,000 students and a faculty member deficit, DU has been struggling to run these institutions from the very beginning. Professor Dr Akhteruzzaman, current vice chancellor of Dhaka University, blames former vice chancellor Professor Dr AAMS Arefin Siddique and says, "These seven colleges were affiliated without any prior plan and in an 'unscientific' manner. This impulsive decision has created a deadlock situation in the university and also in the colleges."
Immediately after the affiliation, not a single class was held in these seven colleges for nine months at a stretch. Most of the students are now in more than a year-long session jam. As a result, students of seven colleges have been demonstrating with five demands. The university must: publish errorless result within 90 days of an exam, re-examine the copies and clarify why such large number of students failed in the recent exams, establish a separate academic building to run the seven colleges, have the college teachers prepare question papers according to the syllabus, and form an academic calendar to eliminate the session jam.
These demonstrations by students of the seven colleges met with other similar protests staged by DU students, but with the opposite demand. These other DU students want to cancel the affiliation with the seven colleges. Shaila Sultana, a student of DU's sociology department, says, "Our regular classes are getting hampered because our teachers remain occupied with these seven colleges. They visit those colleges for inspection and viva exams, and stay busy checking copies while postponing our regular classes. We are forced to sit for exams without attending enough classes. Our results are not published on time. Also, we have to wait for weeks and months to complete a simple task at the registrar's building, such as getting certificates or grade sheets."
An officer of DU's registrar's building supports this claim and says anonymously, "We are in severe dearth of manpower. There are several sections which oversee the academic processes of those seven colleges but those officials also have to work for DU's academic activities simultaneously. In this way, the colleges and the university are both suffering losses."
Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) supported the agitated students of DU, and, during the recent demonstration, DU's academic activities remain stalled for four days as the protesters locked all academic and administrative buildings of the university. They demanded immediate cancellation of affiliation with the seven colleges. Nurul Huq Nur, vice president of DUCSU, says, "We shall continue our movement to cancel the affiliation. Our movement will benefit both the students of the seven colleges and the students of DU. Our university is not prepared to take the responsibility of these colleges. Due to shortage of teachers and officials, it cannot even run its own departments properly. This affiliation will further deteriorate the academic environment."
On the other hand, on August 7, 2019, students of the seven colleges organised a press conference where Abu Bakar states, "If the affiliation is cancelled, we shall block the entire city from Sadarghat to Mohakhali. We want reformation not cancellation. Due to cancellation of classes and frequent postponement of exams, we are now far behind NU. If the affiliation is cancelled, we will not be able to cope with NU students as well."
More than 300,000 students of Dhaka University and seven renowned colleges of the city have become engaged in an existential crisis due to a hectic, unworkable decision taken by the authorities. Professor Dr Akhteruzzaman says, "We want a positive and credible solution. Our students are our first priority. We have formed committees to look into this matter. And we have asked for two weeks to reach a solution."
Two weeks from the day when the vice chancellor made this promise, DU will be closed for more than three weeks due to Eid holidays. Such strategy to buy time will only increase tension among students; their academic performance and future careers will become more uncertain. At present, the fate of more than 300,000 students who live and study in Dhaka city is hanging in the balance. If a pragmatic and prudent step is not taken immediately to ensure quality education for the students of the seven colleges and DU, Bangladesh should await another student agitation in the future.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected].