The long-lasting closure of educational institutions in Bangladesh owing to Covid-19 is going to create an irreparable loss to our education, society and economy: session jam in universities and colleges, loss in the attainment of knowledge and skill, frustration among the learners, wastage of time, resources and energy, and more importantly interruption in social advancement. All sectors and activities of the country have been running as normal since July. Factories, financial institutions, public meetings, social gatherings religious congregations all are going on in full swing without the least attention to public health and safety issues, rules and regulations. Our garment workers are working in crammed working condition and there has not been still any study about whether their crammed working condition has any impact on the rise of corona infection among them. Both the primary and the secondary schools might have some serious health hazards if they are opened now. But colleges and universities are in a better position to maintain the health rules and regulations regarding Covid-19. The students there are more conscious about the virus regulations. It is true that online classes are going on in many colleges and universities. But online education is not the long-time solution and alternative to the face-to-face education.
It appears that we have not still thought about other alternative mode and solution to complete shutdown of education in public universities and colleges under the National University. As the private universities need to rely on tuition fees, they are offering online classes and conducting online examinations. Are the public universities not subsidised by the public money? But the record of online classes by public universities and colleges in rural areas under the National University is not satisfactory till now. The examinations in public universities are also kept postponed for the last nine months which leads to sufferings and dissatisfaction among students. The students of a public university are considering to organise sit-in protest programmes to hold their final examinations immediately. This situation indicates that we have not given thought to solution like blended/ mixed mode or rationing of student attending the face-to-face classes to avert infection and spread of Coronavirus. We have not even thought of opening colleges and universities experimentally for a few days. The public universities with residential halls might have issues with health because many students have to live in a crammed room there. But the private universities, excepting a few, do not have residential halls and hence no health-related issues are there. We have failed to critically analyse the benefits and losses of opening colleges and universities because we give the least importance to education. But, many countries have experimentally opened the universities and colleges and closed again owing to the fresh wave of Covid-19.
The colleges and the universities in the United States remained opened during last August. Many relied on their own expertise, resulting in a wide range of approaches, from telling students to attend online classes from home to bringing everyone back and testing them three times a week. Some were welcoming limited number of students with a face mask stamped with the university’s mascot, a bottle of hand sanitiser and plans to test a fraction of people on campus. It all was like a gigantic, unorganised public-health experiment, with millions of students and many faculty members and staff as participants. Bringing so many university students to crowded campuses was uniquely risky in the United States, which has seen the largest number of deaths due to Covid-19.
These universities have justified calling students back to campuses for educational purposes, but there is another motivation: institutions need the money. More than in many other countries, the universities in the United States for their subsistence have increasingly come to rely on tuition income and fees, including payments for housing and meals. But, ordinary Americans also bear the responsibility. They were not happy with classes to resume in person; they wanted campuses to return to normal. More than two-thirds of students wanted to head back to their colleges. Even parents deeply worried about the safety of their kids still sent them to colleges and universities. When some colleges moved to Zoom, students and parents revolted. More than 100 colleges, both private (Brown, Duke) and public (Rutgers, North Carolina), have been sued for tuition refunds. The reason is it costs almost $60,000 per year to attend Brown, excluding room, board, books, and other fees.
But, why did not the parents and students remain satisfied with the online classes? Classes are still being held, and degrees will still be conferred. Parents and students are not merely satisfied with buying teaching when they pay tuition. Instead, they get something more abstract: the college experience. Some of that experience include things like the seminar discussion in the like of a medieval monastery, the cram session under the vaulted ceiling of a library, the brisk, after-class chat with a professor across a grassy field. But most of these real college experiences cannot be found from a distance, online education. So, students have filed suits over the tuition they paid last spring to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia. The two lawsuits, filed in state court, say the students were deprived of the full educational experience they anticipated when they paid their tuition. However, with the second wave of Covid-19, the universities are again suspending face-to-face classes for a while. India is gradually opening up campuses with imposition of some restrictions. After over seven months of lockdown, colleges and universities in India have been allowed to open with certain restrictions in place. The University Grants Commission (UGC) on 5th November issued new generic preventive guidelines to reopen the universities and the colleges. As per the guidelines, no institution should have an attendance of more than 50 per cent of students and the university and college needs to follow some safety measures. Online classes will simultaneously continue for all programmes except science, technology and research.
It is true that the preparedness and responses of the Indian universities to the online education and e-learning during the coronavirus pandemic are still not at par with those of the developed countries in terms of sophistication. That is a weakness for many Indian higher educational institutions. A recent article titled ‘Indian Universities in Post-Covid Crisis Landscape: The Way Forward’ published in Outlook mentions that still a lot of Indian students are opting for higher education abroad though India can boast of a good number of renowned higher educational institutions occupying places in the list of top 1,000 world universities. The criteria and points of excellence enjoyed by foreign universities that attract these Indian students are present in many Indian universities. The Indian students going abroad usually look for curricular flexibility, diversity, and high teaching quality, much of which are now available in several Indian universities. In spite of all these qualities possessed by them, the most important immediate priority for Indian institutions of higher education in the coming academic years is the consolidation of digital and remote learning methods to deliver a comprehensive learning experience in a landscape severely plagued by the pandemic.
In the backdrop of the steps towards opening campuses in the two countries just mentioned, the most pertinent question is where our universities are in terms of either maintaining quality in normal time or preparation for the unpredictable pandemic and natural disaster to continue education. What other options and strategies for the future have we thought about so that we may not have to lose time, money, energy and not put the future of our youths at stake? Side by side adopting preventive measures for starting the face-to face classes, we should keep the system for the online/mixed mode of education ready for use during any contingency. We should think about a number of measures: investing in online teaching platforms and tools; planning course material, delivery and assessment such that it can be conducted remotely; developing standard guidelines for faculty training in remote teaching, and infrastructure development for online education to maximize effectiveness of this mode of education. For the time being, the government should formulate guidelines for opening the universities and colleges keeping the health-related issues of students, teachers and people working there in consideration.
The writer is an Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of English, BGC Trust University, Chattogram. [email protected]