Straight Talk

Future of a Generation Should Not Be Lost

Abdul Mannan

8 August, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Future of a Generation Should Not Be Lost

Abdul Mannan

The pandemic virus Covid-19 that originated in China last November – which was what the Chinese told the world – by this time has hit  213 countries and taken a toll of 7,13,813 (till Friday morning) lives around the world. The World Health Organisation branded it a pandemic and, by all counts, it is the first one of its kind and is considered a result of globalisation. As such, many have started to question if the concept of globalisation should be rolled back. That is something only the future will tell.

The pandemic has affected every sector of our life from the economy to education to daily work habits. New concepts have been born. Most people did not know what ‘working from home’ was all about. Now the bulk of the global work forces, especially those in white collar profession, are working from home. People in general have learned how to survive without home help and do their own household chores, from cooking to mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets. Those who thought wearing a mask was for bank robbers and terrorists are now out there searching for better masks and some have even decided to wear them even when they are all alone or in bed. Washing our hands at regular intervals has become a habit for many of us too.

The economic toll has been heavy and millions of people across the world have become unemployed. Business houses and establishments that have survived for over a century have announced bankruptcy or the downsizing of their operation. In most countries, there has been a radical change in the demographic composition of its population.

No-one for sure is able to predict when the pandemic will stop taking its toll but one thing is certain: if the past is anything to go by, it will not go away. Once cholera, small pox, plague and leprosy were considered pandemics. These killer diseases did not say good-bye to mankind. Rather, researchers discovered preventive vaccines or medications for them. The case of Covid-19 will not be different. Currently scientists and researchers in several countries are working relentlessly to come up with a vaccine to combat the Covid-19 attack. Oxford University researchers have taken the lead, followed by China and Russia. But the WHO has expressed its opinion that there may not be any vaccine in the near future. The WHO, in fact, keeps on confusing people across the world and can never stick to a decision or give any encouraging or hopeful news. It seems that the global body is suffering from a sort of amnesia. The USA has already announced its withdrawal from WHO although it seems the decision was hastily taken by the Trump administration.

The most irreparable damage has been to the education sector in every country around the world. According to UNICEF, ‘an entire generation has seen its education interrupted. At the height of nation-wide lockdowns since April (some began in February) approximately 91 per cent of the world’s students in more than 194 countries (now 213) were out of school. This has caused immeasurable disruption to the lives, learning and wellbeing of children around the world.’ Some countries have begun to re-open their school doors after taking measures like hand washing stations, physical distancing, mask wearing and temperature checks being integrated into school life. It was a great relief for the returnees to get back to school.

In Bangladesh, like all other countries, everything from the economy to education has been severely affected. People’s everyday life has changed drastically. From the recent statistics and data released by the government it seems the economy is making a U-turn though the country currently is reeling under another natural disaster - flood. Earnings from exports have marginally increased compared to corresponding period last year; remittances have shown remarkable growth; factories are re-opening. Till today, no business has announced complete shut down or dissolution and our expatriate workers are going back to their work places. Our foreign exchange reserve has hit US$ 37 billion, an all-time high. No wonder that many economists and international think-tanks term Bangladesh a country with a mysterious economy. However, there is no mystery about Bangladesh’s economy: it is the resilient character of its people that makes it different from many others in the region.

However, Bangladesh’s education is yet to recover from the paralysis caused by COVID-19. Educational institutions remains closed and millions of students remain idle and it is feared what the country has gained, especially in the primary and secondary education sectors over the last two decades, will be lost forever. The dropout figures are probably staggering. The only good news is that some universities, both in the public and the private sector, have resumed their learning and teaching through distance mode as being carried out in most countries across the world.

In a recent blog post by the World Bank, published on 5 August, it termed this development in Bangladesh as ‘COVID-19 boosts digitisation of higher education in Bangladesh’. The post was authored by Mokhlesur Rahman (WB), Mustahsin-ul Aziz and Shazia Omar Ahmed. It credited the University Grants Commission (UGC) for rising to the occasion and introducing policies requiring all universities to go digital, to make teaching and learning activities accessible online, including admissions. In four months, digitisation has been mainstreamed. An average of around 3,800 classes is now held online with more than two hundred and twenty thousand students in attendance. So far 9.2 million students have attended and 10,200 faculty members participated in this online mode.

The authors explain the causes of this success and mention ‘a large part of it is due to the support and backing provided by the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN). One hundred and forty-seven out of the 153 public and private universities in the country are receiving support from BdRen to teach online and the support is at no cost. The Government of Bangladesh with support from the World Bank initiated the process of digitising higher education through the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) in 2009. The performance of BdRen in this hour of crisis is personally gratifying for me. When I took on the post of Chairman of the UGC in 2015, project performance was far from satisfactory. Roughly 50% of the ten-year US$ 260 million project had been completed and most people, including the WB, were somewhat frustrated. It faced many ups and down. But thanks to the Finance, Education and ICT ministries along with my colleagues at UGC and the Project Implementation Team, deputed from the government and constant monitoring by the WB team, by the end of project tenure on 31 December 2018, the HEQEP project ended with 92% completion performance report. The World Bank’s final performance report stated it was ‘Highly Satisfactory.’ In the last four decades, not many projects of these natures have ended on such a note from the World Bank. Seeing the implantation capability of the UGC of such a project, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and GTZ of Germany came forward with similar projects with even bigger budgets. The 2 million Euro GTZ project was financed through a grant. The WB came out with another bigger project called Higher Education Acceleration and Transformation (HEAT) which was planned to be a multinational one, involving participation from China, Afghanistan, Nepal and India while UGC of Bangladesh would be the implementing agency. We planned for these projects and had a number of meetings and workshops with the concerned stakeholders, including the Planning Commission, but as my term at the UGC came to an end on 8 May 2019, I lost touch with their development. Throughout the implementation of the HEQEP project, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina kept on inspiring us and when I asked her if we should accept the ADB and WB’s Heat project, she clearly said ‘yes, on our and your terms.’ However as the BdRen is playing a vital role in the higher education section in this hour of crisis no person is happier than I am.

The Ministries of Education and Primary and Mass Education now need to seriously think about the how to reopen the doors of schools and colleges. More than hundred thousand examinees are waiting to take their HSC examination and the fear is many of those who prepared to sit for the exam will not be there when the exams take place. This will happen more among female students. Solutions to overcome the crisis may not be difficult to find. What is needed is brainstorming among some creative minds. We cannot afford to lose a generation by not providing them a platform for their education. In the long run it will be the nation that will suffer if there is no timely intervention.


The writer is an analyst and a