The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the education sector everywhere in the world. Like the junior levels, the students who attend higher education in developing countries have been suffering as their academic life has been static. Nevertheless, in developed countries, the situation is different as most institutions have coped with the new normal situation transforming into an online education system. They have better IT infrastructure and advanced IT knowledge of the students required to cope with new normal life triggered by the lethal virus. Therefore, like other developing countries, Bangladesh's public university students are worried about their academic life since all educations have remained closed since the 18th of March 2020.
Together with the UGC and the university administration, the Ministry of Education is working relentlessly to develop a possible plan for coping with the new normal life at the universities. One strategy was to introduce online classes in both public and private universities. As per the government's direction, online classes are taking place in all most all universities. The UGC signed agreements with various telecommunication networks to provide students with low-cost internet. They have also offered a free loan to purchase the devices necessary for online classes to over 40 thousand students at different universities. They are helping the government taking proactive action to solve this century's severe crisis in the higher education sector.During the unprecedented time of the century, private university students have found themselves better positioned than in public universities as they could manage to complete their academic careers by attending online classes and appearing at online examinations. There are some practical problems for the private universities as they are required to pay the salary of the faculties and staff from students’ tuition fees. Therefore, if they do not continue their academic activities, their survival will be under serious question. Of course, the decision of the private universities to offer degrees taking online examinations have been highly criticised by different sections of society. At some points, a restriction was imposed by the UGC on awarding degrees by private universities based on online examinations. However, they were compelled to lift the restriction considering the plight of the private university authorities. The completion of degrees of the private universities during the pandemic has frustrated the public university students as their academic life has become static due to failure to appear at the examinations. Moreover, these students are worried thinking that private university students would occupy the job market.
Of late, the public university students could see the light at the end of the tunnel as the UGC, in consultation with the Vice-Chancellors of the public universities, has agreed to take online examinations at the public universities if the corona situation does not improve. This is a well thought out decision as we do not have any clear idea about the deadline for the end of this pandemic. The most frustrating thing was that the public university students could not sit for examinations for more than a year after completing their courses online. The situation is more difficult for the semester system students than those of the yearly system as they have already lost two to three semesters. Therefore, following the decision of the UGC, the respective university authorities should chalk out their plan to take online examinations at the soonest possible time as the authority would require bringing changes in the legal framework guiding the examinations.
Some of the universities decided to continue classes of different semesters without taking examinations. It was not a well-thought-out decision as the students would become more frustrated finding them nowhere as many students might forget what they might have learned in their classes while attending the new semester without attending the examinations. Therefore, instead of solving the students' problems, such a decision would exacerbate the crisis, causing them to become traumatic.
In addition, the authority should have addressed certain practical questions. One may argue that many students do not take online courses either willingly or unintentionally. Many of these students may have equipment crisis or low internet connectivity, and sustained power supplies. What will happen to these student groups if the next semester classes begin without examinations? Therefore, before reaching a final decision, the authorities should think twice.
A relevant concern now is what should be done to save and encourage our students to overcome the trauma caused by the pandemic? One possible strategy may be to determine the core threshold for public university students to take online exams. The rules of the respective university would need to be amended to materialising this objective. We have already found that almost every public university authorities have notified it of holding virtual selection board meetings, MPhil and PhD viva-voce examinations and viva-voce exams at the end of the year. Therefore, students' examinations can also be conducted online if these evaluations and meetings could be conducted remotely. There is, of course, a technical concern, as in most public universities; there is double examinations system of the scripts. How are two examiners going to examine scripts if the students are tested online? This issue can also be solved.
The authorities should introduce different test segments instead of putting too much emphasis on written examinations. As far as my knowledge goes, in most public universities, the students' assessments are done based on a combination of methods, including in-course examinations, presentations, class attendants and final examinations. Therefore, the authorities could consider introducing an interim examination system making some adjustment to their previous system. They could introduce open book type-examination along with assignments, student attendance and presentation. Since two examiners examine the written examination scripts, they could submit the scanned copy to the class teachers through email or any other form who would forward a copy to the second examiners. The university authorities should also consider setting up a central drop box in which students could submit their scripts, and both the examiners would have access to examine those.Many may differ with my proposal because the students may adopt unfair means while submitting their scripts. Considering this issue in mind, I have suggested for introduction of an open-book type examination. During the worst ever time of the century, we must trust each other to overcome the deadlock triggered by the pandemic. Of course, there is still a problem with those students without smart phones, fast internet connections and uninterrupted electricity supply. These groups may be given a chance to take the examinations once the situation would improve. We must acknowledge that no decision could satisfy 100 per cent of the stakeholders. Therefore, the authority must decide with an immediate effect to save the students' academic career at the tertiary level.
It goes without saying that life is indeed more valuable than time. Therefore, many might argue that it would not make a big difference if students get their degrees one or two years later. However, we must admit that no one could prescribe a timeline to resume our normal life. Thus, there is no alternative to developing strategies to help students complete their academic life during the pandemic. Like the government's efforts in other sectors, they should come out with a concrete plan in this regard. We know that our Education Minister and her team are working relentlessly to figure out an appropriate mechanism to help students overcome the situation. However, the university authorities should also help the ministry to overcome the situation. We have seen the brilliance of digital Bangladesh in different sectors during the pandemic. Therefore, we must capitalise on the potential of digital Bangladesh in academia as well. If we could come to a concrete decision about the online examinations of the public university students, they would feel happy and come out from the trauma caused by the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The writer is a Professor of Public
Administration at the University