Readers may not know Mrinal Das (50). According to different print and electronic media, Mrinal Das, a three wheel auto taxi driver of Satkania in Chattogram (lived with his family in a colony in the city), had a dream to see his daughter enter one of the highest seats of learning in the country, Chittagong University. Like any other candidate, the daughter along with her father, struggled in a suffocating university shuttle train, sat for the examination but, while returning, her father, Mrinal Das, suffocated inside the packed shuttle and died. Perhaps the hopes of the family to see their daughter studying in the university also died with Mrinal Das. Usually such families are dependent on one or two people for their day-to-day life, including education, and when that important person is gone, many dreams also face a tragic end. The case of Mrinal Das’ daughter may not be an exception.
University admission season in Bangladesh is a nightmare for both parents and students alike. Every year about a million students pass their Higher Secondary School or equivalent examinations and at least half of them vie for a seat in a public university as in these universities education is highly subsidized, virtually free. In the 1960s, the six public universities, which catered to the needs of higher education in Bangladesh, did not have any admission test for university admission seekers. The selection was made based on the transcripts of the Secondary School Certificate Boards. There were only four of them: Dhaka, Rajshahi, Jashore and Cumilla. An admission seeker deposited his form along with the transcripts at the Dean’s office. Usually the office staff serialized the forms based on the transcript and, on a given day, the names of successful candidates were posted on the Dean’s office notice board.With the passage of time the number of admission seekers continued to rise and most universities decided to administer entry level examinations department-wise. Still that was manageable. The sufferings of both students and parents were minimal. The teachers had to check exam scripts manually and this, no doubt, put an extra burden on them (although they received some paltry compensation). As the number of High School graduates rose though, so did the pressure for admission to universities and colleges. The universities came up with the idea that, instead of individual departments conducting the examination, the Faculty offices under the guidance of the Dean would administer the admission test.
Over the years, as demand grew, the number of universities and colleges both in the public and private sectors grew with it. However, as education in private universities was expensive, the rush for seats in public ones continued to grow exponentially and currently, on an average, for any one seat forty students compete. That is where the woes of students and parents begin and every year becomes unbearable for them. Initially, the scripts were checked manually and it took days or even weeks before the results could be published. In 1997, Dhaka University began to use OMR for conducting the examination and results could be electronically read and published faster. Seeing their success, I, as Vice Chancellor of Chittagong University, introduced a similar system in 1999, but the sufferings of students did not end with the introduction of this technology. Although there are currently forty-five public universities throughout the country, students still prefer to get admitted in the older ones, especially Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Jahangirnagar, BUET, SUST and Bangladesh Agriculture University. Lately, some second-generation universities have also managed to attract students and parents alike. Notable among them are the Science and Technology universities, Agriculture Universities, Khulna University and Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Science University, Bangladesh University of Textiles.
As the number of admission seekers continues to grow and each university is bent on administering their own admission test, applicants’ sufferings have become unbearable. A student appears today in Chittagong, the next he has to take a test in SUST in Sylhet. From Chittagong to Sylhet by overnight train and then a day later to Dhaka and by night train to Rajshahi. We are not talking of one or two hundred admission seekers, we are talking of thousands.
Now, once they arrive at their destination, just the day before the examination, the biggest problem they face is accommodation. The worst sufferers are girls and with practically every female student one of her parents or brother travels with her. Once, on enquiry in Rajshahi, I was told that a couple of hundred find accommodation in student dormitories with someone they know but most spend the night in the university mosques, on railway station platforms, in bus stations, the local Shah Makhdum Mazar, Ram Krishna Mission Ashram or other temple yards, on the streets or for those who can afford it, in some cheap hotels. I was informed by the Rajshahi Parjatan Motel Manager that all their accommodations are booked and many slept in the corridors. Again the worst sufferers were girls.
To make life a bit easier for admission seekers for quite a few years, concerned educationists, parents and even students advocated that, to minimize such a catastrophic admission system, reform was needed. One good idea is to have a cluster system examination where students seeking admission in one particular faculty will take the exam on the same day; it can even be administered in two or more shifts. The selection of universities will be made by the students but the final selection will depend on the availability of seats on his choice of preference in chronological order. In September of 2016, President M A Hamid who is also the Chancellor of all the universities of the country, while distributing the UGC research award to the university teachers and researchers, appealed to all Vice-chancellors present to find some way to ease the situation. The Vice-chancellors listened but no subsequent action was taken. The request from the Chancellor should be like an order but unfortunately not in this case.
As the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, it was embarrassing for me when later the Chancellor enquired why nothing had happened after his appeal. I had no answer. However, I informed him that a meeting of the public university Vice-chancellors could be arranged by the UGC and requested him to address them on the same issue. The Chancellor readily agreed. A meeting was arranged at Bangabhaban. Besides the Chairman of UGC and all its members, the then Education Minister and the Chancellor’s Secretary (Education Secretary) were all present. The Chancellor in his initial remarks reiterated his earlier concern about the woes of admission seekers but, in the end, it seemed to me his appeal fell on deaf ears. Everybody had his own excuse for why he thought the current system was working and, surprisingly, one Vice-chancellor of a leading public university was audacious enough to announce that his university’s admission system was foolproof and he saw no wrong in the current system. Another learned Vice-chancellor announced they wanted full control over their admission system without any interference from outside. None appreciated the concern of the Chancellor or the admission seekers and their parents. Everyone was concerned only with their own interests. To me, a meeting presided over by the President of the country, the Chancellor of all universities, should never end on such a sad and frustrating note.One piece of good news this year is that the Vice-chancellors of all agricultural universities have agreed to arrange for a common test, the result of the continuous persuasion of the UGC. Recently the Education Minister has announced that from next year the admission test will be conducted on a cluster system basis. How far her expectation will succeed is the million dollar question.
In no country, including India, is admission to universities so chaotic and painful. Examinations are generally conducted centrally by some recognized agencies and universities decide what their cut off mark for admission will be. Some may also have their own individual tests but these are better organised. It is now high time for all universities to be more realistic and find the means to minimize the sufferings of thousands of admission seekers every year. What is happening right now is at best insane and irrational. If the current university authorities can come up with a better alternative, their names will be written in the history of education in Bangladesh. As for the daughter of Mrinal Das, I appeal to the Chittagong University authorities to consider admitting his daughter in the department of her choice, whatever her result is. Let us be a bit humane.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator