Since the declaration of temporary closure of all educational institutes in mid-March, students’ academic lives are faced with many uncertainties. The talk of effectively offering lessons online is publicly debated. For private university students, the question of online classes raises a set of other concerns including increased educational expense, lack of students’ representation in decision making during the COVID-19 outbreak, Nahid Riyasad writes
ON DECEMBER 31, the WHO China country office was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan City, Hubei province of China. By mid-January 2020, it was confirmed that in the Wuhan, China many citizens have died being infected by novel coronavirus (COVID-19). On January 30, as the virus reached countries in Asia and Europe taking lives and infecting people, the World Health Organisation declared it a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. Between the time of WHO’s declaration of public health emergency and the first reported case of infection in Bangladesh on March 8, the government had about six weeks to prepare its response and prevention strategy, but it seems that all authorities concerned have fallen short.
Considering the experience of already effected countries, it was imminent that Bangladesh may also have to close its educational institutes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the students, yet the education ministry had no strategies in place to ensure students education in case of protracted shut-down. In the absence of a plan, educational institute independently took decisions. While student’s academic lives are priority concerns, livelihood of teacher’s community are also at stake here.
The decision to continue academic programmes through online classes and exams at private universities was mostly imposed on students as they have no scope of raising their concern through a student body or other representations. Besides, the University Grants Commission too did not have a clear directive for university administrations on how best to operate during a moment of such unprecedented crisis. Even a cursory look at the number of times, UGC made a decision only to retract will prove this point:
Meanwhile, private university students began to raise their concern about the online classes in different social media platforms. On April 19, New Age Youth published a story titled ‘COVID-19 and the conundrum of online classes’ that shed light on how online classes are increasing their educational expenses and limiting the scope of interactive learning as students do not have chances to ask questions.
One student in a public group pointed out that in her hometown, only Grameenphone offers somewhat usable internet, even though, she has to sit or stand in specific place such as her rooftop to get uninterrupted connection. Her post also gives a rough estimation, to attend online classes, of the already expensive internet data package. She uses 4 GB pack for TK 108 with a validity of 7 days. From March 16 to April 13, in the one-month time frame, she required two packs of data per week (two classes per day each needing roughly 500 MB and 500 MB more to download videos and required documents for that class) meaning Tk 864 for internet per month, which is a burden for her limited monthly allowance. Moreover, she had to go outside several times only to recharge her internet which put her at risk of catching COVID-19. Besides, some students reported that university administrations have continued collecting fees, even charged late fee at this hour of economic crisis.
As students have no direct avenue to express their concern, they waited for the UGC to offer a student friendly guideline for private university’s operation during the outbreak. On April 30, an online meeting was held in this regard which was attended by the education minister, deputy education minister, University Grants Commission officials, vice-chancellors of public and private universities and Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh representatives. No student representatives were there to present their side of the story, their concerns about academic lives. Following the meeting, on May 7, the UGC issued a directive allowing conditional online classes at private universities.
According to the UGC directive, private universities that have completed 70 per cent of academic activities of current semester and have been conducting online classes successfully for theoretical courses will be able to evaluate their students via viva and presentations online. They can prepare the results only after confirming that at least 60 per cent students are participating in the online classes. Private universities that have not started online classes should specifically inform the UGC about their plan to complete their current semesters by May 17.
While the UGC directive provide some guideline, it does not in any way address student’s concern. Different student organisations have condemned the decision on the ground that not all student can readily afford internet and access to computer set-up during the outbreak. Mehedi Hasan Nobel, president of Bangladesh Students’ Union expressed his frustration as private university students’ do not have a student body, they don’t get to voice their concern. For this reason, they did not have any participation in the April 30 meeting where their future was decided. One would expect that such decision making meetings will have student representatives otherwise they could not be inclusive. On May 9, the members of Bangladesh Student’s Union held a rally at Shahbagh, Dhaka demanding that students’ fee be temporarily cancelled during the COVID-19 outbreak. They also demanded the UGC to form a specific guideline for the tuition fees during the crisis period.
The most recent UGC guideline created scope for private universities to continue to enrollment and collect tuition fees. Now, APUB asks for an incentive package to the government. According to UGC sources, their application is forwarded to the concerned department of the education ministry. The reason for the package is to clear the salaries of 25,000 teachers and academic staffs of these universities.
Many students were perplexed at the APUB move for stimulus package. Yeasin Arafat, spokesperson of Private University Students, during a conversation with New Age Youthtold that private universities application for incentive is immoral and contradictory. They have asked for incentive and asked the students to pay at the same time. Whereas, the students have demanded to postpone the tuition fees for this moment and to allow the students to pay their tuition fees in installments when the situation normalises.
Anik Roy, general secretary of Bangladesh Students’ Union response helps to understand why students are so irked at the APUB request, ‘private universities are established with charitable philosophy, however, with time, they are turning into business institutions. This is evident as many of them are able to pay the salaries of the teacher with their surplus money but they are asking for government incentives’.
Students responses points us to the Private University Act 2010 which provide the legal framework for private university’s operation. What the Act says about the financing? The Article 41 of the Act categorises six sources of finances: first, unconditional donations from philanthropists, social welfare trusts or organisations; second, loans from philanthropists, social welfare trusts or organisations; third, grants from the said sources; fourth, students’ tuition fees; fifth, university’s personal income generated from different sources; and sixth, other sources approved by the government and UGC.
Therefore, in accordance with the law, students’ tuition fees are the fourth income sources for the private universities. Donations, grants and loans from philanthropists, trust funds and welfare organisation are the first three sources of finances. This has to be noted that private universities are established, by definition, by such organisations and philanthropists who want to contribute in the education sector of the country.
New Age Youth asked Sheikh Kabir Hossain, the president of APUB about the Private University Act 2010 and sources of financing outlined in the Act, ‘The first three provisions say that the trustee members have to finance the operation and tuition fees comes fourth. The reality is different, though, because these members have already spent a substantial amount of money to establish the institution and further monetary injection is hard for them. As a result, they have to rely on the tuition fees.’
Therefore, students are not wrong when they say that private university administration are in violation of the Act, as they treat students as their primary source of income. A discrepancy between the legal provision and practice is also acknowledged by the president of APUB.
It will be also a mistake to overlook the differential capacity of different private universities. Not all universities will be facing the income shock in the same way during the outbreak. The UGC’s annual report 2018 gives us a gross idea about the income and expenditure of the private universities.
• North South University’s earnings in 2018 was Tk 431.84 crore and expense was Tk 325.85 crore. For teacher and staff salary, they had to spend Tk 25.52 crore. This means, their surplus amount is sufficient to pay four year’s salary.
• Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology earned Tk 100 crore whereas they spend Tk 75 crore for the operations. They spend Tk 50 crore for salary.
• Independent University Bangladesh earned Tk 150 crore whereas their expenditure was around Tk 160 crore. Their salary expenditure is around Tk 67 crore.
• American International University Bangladesh earned Tk 245 crore and their total expenditure was Tk 236 crore. They spend Tk 70 crore for their salary.
• East West University earned Tk 176 crore whereas their expenses were Tk 137 crore. EWU had a surplus of Tk 39 crore and their salary expenses were Tk 71 crore. This means they can bear the salary expenses for nearly six months without any earnings.
• University of Asia Pacific earned Tk 74 crore and their expenses were Tk 61 crore with a surplus of Tk 13 crore. They spend about Tk 34 crore for salary purposes.
• Southeast University earned Tk 92.73 core and their expenses were Tk 64.84 crore with Tk 29 crore surplus. They spend Tk 37.28 crore for salary purpose indicating they can easily continue paying salaries for two semesters without taking tuition fees.
• City University earned Tk 45.46 crore and spend Tk 33.05 crore with a surplus of Tk 12 crore. They paid Tk 12.61 crore for salary purpose.
• Green University Bangladesh, in 2018 earned Tk 63.13 and spend Tk 36.67 crore with Tk 27 crore surplus. Their salary purpose expenses are around Tk 17 crore which indicates they can easily pay their staff for over a year without tuition fees.
• World University Bangladesh earned Tk 32.23 and spend Tk 23.30 with a surplus of Tk 9 crore. Their salary expenses are Tk 14.01 crore.
The president of APUB, Sheikh Kabir Hossain substantiated the statistics presented above that the private universities those are well-known can afford to swallow the financial loss due to lock-down, but the newly founded ones are still struggling. It is financially hard for the new universities to recruit better quality teachers, thus they attract fewer students. They need stimulus package.
Hossain’s statement also indicates that for a university to financially reach a break-even point needs certain number of students, which also means that the primary institutional attention, at least in the first few years, are on increasing the number of students than ensuring quality education for those enrolled. While discussing about the incentive package, Kabir Hossain added, ‘We will discuss the amount after getting a positive nod from the government bodies. That package could be used to aid the universities that are already struggling.’
On May 6, the UGC issued another notice to the vice-chancellors of public universities asking the public university teachers to participate in a survey which will help to form an online education learning policy. Students rightfully asked, ‘when private universities are already asked to start classes without a policy, public university private universities were rushed to save their business interest, but the same decision is stalled for public university students.’
Yet again, in the backdrop of an epidemic outbreak, the crisis over the online classes in private university made it evident that all authorities concerns are there, but not with the students’ interest at heart.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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