The Covid-19 pandemic has paralysed the education sector all over the world. Like the junior levels, the students attending tertiary education in developing countries have been struggling as their academic life has become stagnant. The situation, however, is different in developed countries where most of the universities have transformed into the online education system. They can deal with new normal lives triggered by the lethal virus as they have better ICT facilities and students have easy access to it. But public university students of Bangladesh are passing time with disquiet as they are perturbed about their academic life.
The Ministry of Education, along with the UGC and the university administrations, is working tirelessly to figure out a potential strategy for coping with the new normal life in universities. Among different strategies, one strategy was to introduce online classes in all private and public universities. And online classes are going on in most of the universities. The UGC has reached agreements with the different mobile networks that are offering low-cost internet to the students. Even an arrangement has been made by the UGC to offer an interest-free loan to over forty thousand public university students for procurement of the devices required for online classes. These are constructive measures taken by the UGC to overcome the unprecedented crisis.Compared to public universities, private university students are better off as they could attend online classes and sit for examinations. This would help them not to miss out any academic year. However, some of the private universities have been suffering from scarcity of funds for which they are struggling to pay salary to the faculties and staff. However, criticisms are being made of the decision of private universities to award degrees based on an online examination. Though the UGC imposed some restrictions on online examination during the early days of Covid-19, they lifted their ban in response to the request of the Private University Owners' Association. The passing out of the graduates of the private universities amid the pandemic has created a sense of frustration among the public university students, as their academic life has become stagnant. The fourth-year and masters' students are getting tensed thinking that private university students would occupy the job market. Of course, there are arguments and counter-arguments on such thinking as the process of recruitment at the government and private sectors has become dormant.
Indeed, the public university students could not see any light at the end of the tunnel as no concrete decision has yet been made either by the respective universities or Ministry of Education or the UGC concerning their examinations. Despite challenges, the reality is that the students of public universities are also attending online classes for the last five or six months. In most cases, the students have either finished their curriculum or are nearing the completion, and thus they are waiting to sit for examinations. Unfortunately, they could not sit for the examinations online as the laws of the public universities do not permit the authorities to award degrees to their students based on an online examination. If it is not possible, what would happen to the students who are about to lose a year from their academic life? The severity of the situation is more severe for the students attending the semester system as they are about to lose two-semesters from their life. As our Prime Minister apprehended, it is difficult to determine how long this stalemate would continue in the face of further worsening of Covid-19 situation during the winter.
Meanwhile, the Dhaka University authorities have instructed their Program Offering Entities (PoEs) to continue classes for the next semester without taking examinations of the previous semester. This is not a wise decision as the students may become frustrated finding them nowhere. Many students may have forgotten what they have learned in their classes while attending the new semester without attending the examinations. Therefore, this is not a solution to save the academic life of our students. Such a decision will exacerbate even the current crises causing them to become traumatic.
Besides, there are some practical issues that the authorities should have dealt with. From my personal experience of taking online classes, I could add that a certain percentage of students do not attend online classes either intentionally or unintentionally. Many of them might have problems with equipment or poor internet connection and sustained supply of electricity. What would happen to these groups of students if the classes of next semester start without examinations? Therefore, the authorities should think twice before taking a final decision.
Now a pertinent question is what can be worked out to save our students and stimulate them to overcome the pandemic trauma? One potential strategy can be to decide the central level to take online examinations of public university students. This may require bringing changes to the laws of the respective university. We have already noticed that almost all the public universities have issued the notification to hold virtual meetings of selection committees, MPhil and PhD viva-voce examinations, and year-end viva-voce examinations. If these examinations and meetings can be carried out virtually, examinations can also be held online. Of course, there is a technical problem as there is a provision of double examinations for the scripts in most of the public universities. How will the scripts be examined by two examiners if the students take online examinations?
Students should sit for online examinations keeping their cameras on. After the examination, a scanned copy of the image of the scripts can be submitted to all examiners within five-ten minutes. Alternatively, the authorities could consider developing a central dropbox where students would upload their scripts and examiners would be given access to evaluate those. Many may disagree with my proposition as students may adopt unfair means while attending these examinations. But, we will have to trust them during the unprecedented situation and we will have to monitor them strictly while they would appear at the examinations. Even many would argue that what would happen to those who do not have devices and speedy internet connection? The UGC should work more seriously with the universities to identify the students with the acute need for the devices. If these could be done, it would be possible to help students overcome their trauma by saving their academic life.Life is indeed more precious than time. Therefore, one may contend that it would not affect the students more vigorously if they obtain their degrees one or two-year later. Yet, we must comprehend that we cannot predict when we would get back to our normal life. Therefore, we must determine strategies to cope with the new normal life triggered by Covid-19. The government is trying desperately to save people in danger during this pandemic. They should also develop a comprehensive and pragmatic plan to save the students of public universities. In a way, Covid-19 has offered us a blessing by creating an opportunity to flourish in the areas of digital Bangladesh which is one of the prime goals of the present government. We have attained tremendous progress in digitising different services in various sectors. Now, it is time to decide proactively to transform a conventional learning environment into an online system. If we could make it happen, the students of public universities would feel shy of relief and come out from trauma being triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The writer is a Professor of Public
Administration and an Additional
Director of the Institutional Quality
Assurance Cell (IQAC) of the University of Rajshahi.