Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, a professor of English at the University of Dhaka who has worked with the government on the national education system and held several positions in other private universities, tells Ershad Kamol about the government’s policy intervention in the education sector amid the COVID-19 outbreak in an interview with New Age
New Age: Do you think government policies and interventions are appropriate for mitigating the education sector crisis during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Syed Manzoorul Islam: No, not at all. We have not yet seen any effective mitigation measures for the crisis that might push up primary dropout rate to 30 per cent as many parents have become jobless. As a result, child labour, early marriage and several other social problems would increase.
And many children do not have access to television or the internet that the government has used to introduce online academic activities. Public universities are also not well-equipped to run online academic activities. Although private universities have started running online education, it would burden parents financially in a situation where livelihood has faced set back and mobile data remain the most expensive in Asia. Even if a tenth of private university students miss the semester, it will be a crime.
New Age: What could be the impact of COVID-19 on education?
Syed Manzoorul Islam: As in many other countries, education in Bangladesh, which faces many problems for wrong policy adoption, will be seriously affected.
A major problem in the education system is the rich-poor divide. It will further increase as attention has not been adequately paid to dropout issues yet institutions have been allowed to run online education for about a half of the students who are solvent.
The government cannot do this, ethically or constitutionally. The people who advocate online education and express satisfaction at the introduction of such systems ‘digital Bangladesh’ must also think about the poor students who face dropout threats. Bringing back students to schools again should be a priority. The disparity will, otherwise, increase.
New Age: Are you against online education?
Syed Manzoorul Islam: No, but I’m against disparity. And I’ll be absolutely in for it only when all the required infrastructure, facilities, connectivity and affordability would be ensured for all.
But in reality, we are far behind such requirements even though we claim having gone digital and introduced 4G internet connectivity.
The government plays the ‘number game’ to show a higher number of mobile users and their access to the internet. What does it matter if one person has five smartphones when five others don’t have any? Lies are hidden in statistics and the government is happy about coming up with numbers rather than addressing the problems.
The disparity will peak if the government forces all teachers of schools, colleges and universities to take classes online in view of the technical knowledge of some teachers of only a few reputed universities.
Does a school teacher, who is paid the money the driver of a upazila nirbahi officer gets, have a computer? If not, how can the person be trained? Without the device and training, how will they prepare lessons?
I know many of my colleagues in Dhaka University who don’t have technical knowledge to prepare online lessons.
And look at the class size. Is it convenient to teach more tan a hundred students via Zoom or any other apps? Not more than 30 students should be in an online class. So, the government needs to appoint five times the current number of teachers who would be qualified and technically sound.
Theories can be taught online, but it may not be appropriate for practical and lab-based technical subjects such as microbiology, medicine or engineering. The condition of students should also be considered. How many of them have laptops or access to the internet? Will they all be able to pay for the internet when an hour of class on Zoom would cost Tk 70?
The quality of connectivity is very poor. Apart from some places in Dhaka and Chattogram, 4G connectivity is not available elsewhere. Even in my house at Dhanmondi, the internet service frequently gives trouble. The situation is only worse in rural areas.
In fact, the government has no control over mobile operators and internet service providers. We have given in to the ‘predatory attitude’ of multinational companies and nobody says anything against their profiteering mentality as they have managed mostly everything.
New Age: What’s your evaluation of the education system?
Syed Manzoorul Islam: What can you expect when the government is obsessed with quantity, not quality? The government is busy showing a higher enrolment in schools, higher pass rates in public examinations and a higher number of GPA 5 achievers to meet the goals as set in the Sustainable Development Goals and action plans.
In my department, I have seen that 90 per cent of the students who achieved GPA 5 in public examinations cannot even write four sentences correctly. So, attention should be given to quality and dropout containment. But, unfortunately, the government doesn’t take our suggestions even after we are invited to forums or made members on different committees.
We still have time to learn from the crisis at hand. All coaching centres have been suspended and the state-run television channels are airing education programmes that we have demanded for years in the greater interest of students.
We also need to focus more on the improvement of education quality and technological supports for all students to make them meet challenges of the 21st century.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion