Sunday, October 5, 2014

Education sector on edge of precipice


Education sector on edge of precipice
M. Serajul Islam

The Education Minister and the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University were pitched in a media battle this week over results of admission tests for the 2014-15 first year Honours in a manner that is unbelievable. The issue is the mismatch in the performance of students in SSC/HSC examinations and DU admission tests. Sixty-six% of GPA-5 holders in the SSC and HSC Examinations (students with 80% and more marks, “star” students of the earlier days) failed to pass the admission tests. In English Department admission test, only 2 passed! And lest we have forgotten, these are students whose brilliance had been certified by the Prime Minister and the Education Minister to underline the high quality of students and the education system up to the HSC level for which they took great credit.

The Education Minister, instead of explaining how so few could have passed the DU admission tests where the same students had passed with such brilliant results in their SSC/HSC examinations, blamed the Dhaka University for deliberately failing the students with its unrealistic, made to fail, admission tests. He thought it fit to go to the media to blame the Dhaka University authorities. The Dhaka University Vice Chancellor, instead of going behind the media to discuss the problem, also chose the media to answer the allegations. He challenged the Education Minister by stressing that the students failed because they were not good enough. The nation was forced to watch their fight, astounded and dumb founded because the two between them humiliated the Prime Minister in public.

The Education Minister has a lot of good will going in his favour among the public. In the cabinets the country has had in the last few years, Ministers have involved themselves in all sorts of antics that have added very little to their credibility but have embarrassed the government beyond tolerable limits. Nevertheless it has been extremely surprising that none of the Ministers have been called to explain for their embarrassing conduct. In that backdrop, the Education Minister has come across as a serious, committed and above all, honest person whose integrity has not been questioned in any forum.

His good work with trying to set the education sector on a better footing has been acknowledged, particularly in getting textbooks to the students in time. He has also done visibly good work with the orderly holding of the major examinations up to the HSC level with issues of improving curriculums in the schools and colleges and improving the gender issues in these levels of education in the country. Nevertheless, his efforts in dealing with corruption in the education sector, particularly with leakages of question papers, commercialization of admission in the public sector schools and colleges and the impunity of the student wing of the ruling party in the educational institutions were palpable failures. Nevertheless, he has not been held responsible for these ills on a personal level, as people have seen these as a part of the deterioration of politics and influence of politics in the educational sector.

Nevertheless, the people’s good feelings for him started to change with the way he went to the media with the HSC results. Except for the very few people in the ruling party and in his own Ministry, the rest of the country saw that he led a political campaign with the last HSC results, using the numbers to establish that the education sector is having the best years in the country’s history and tied it to the successful AL leadership of the government and society. The Minister’s loud claims were shot down not by the BNP or the Jamat but by almost everybody across the political divide. Experts in education, without any political affiliations, have come in the media to tell the Minister that he was using inflated and manipulated numbers to give a wrong picture of the country’s education sector where in reality the sector was slumping into the abyss.

The Prime Minister unfortunately put her good name into the debate and blamed that those criticising the Minister for the “brilliant” HSC results were jealous of the great progress in the education sector. Unfortunately for her and the Education Minister, the DU entry examinations and the pathetic pass numbers more than established the widespread concerns that credible, non-political individuals have expressed and continue to express about the falling standard in education. Nevertheless, in the way the DU authorities acted, all is of course neither fair nor well. Serious questions are being raised on how the pass percentages in the DU entry examinations could drop so low in the span of a year. Last year, these pass percentages in DU entry examinations were not as absurd as this year.

Therefore many tend to believe something wrong in the way the DU authorities have conducted their entry examinations. The minister has accused the system as faulty, one designed to fail the students. The DU VC dismissed the accusation and defended the DU system as most modern. The positions are extremes and made little sense to the public. Clearly, there is no way both can be right in their contradictory positions. If the DU is correct in its stand on the issue of the entry examinations, then where would its English Department for instance get the students to keep the department from closing?

The Minister, unfortunately for his public image, has no doubt played politics with the HSC examinations. Nevertheless, he has a point with the faulty entry examinations. No one will buy the DU argument that politics notwithstanding, the ability of students who have passed the HSC examinations this year has fallen so abysmally low that so few would be able to enter Dhaka University. This position simply cannot be accepted as true. Dr. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury has hinted at where the problem lies. He said that the problem is embedded in the fact that students these days neglect classroom teaching and “more inclined towards attending coaching centres to learn the technique of obtaining better marks in the exams and answer sheets are evaluated liberally.”

Dr. Chowdhury has also stated that students do not receive quality education from primary to tertiary levels. Thus thanks to the coaching centres, these students learn the techniques to pass SSC and HSC level examinations in record numbers with many with “brilliant results”. That answers the “brilliant” results at this year’s HSC examination that started the public debate over the education sector. Dr. Chowdhury has thus exposed unequivocally why the HSC results were brilliant and why the DU entry examinations taken by these “brilliant” students were pathetically the opposite. The problem is the SSC/HSC Examinations that these students passed and many with brilliant results do not in any way prepare them for the DU admission tests! That such a ridiculous and unbelievable mismatch exists is what the experts were trying to point out.

That brings to question why were the DU authorities sitting till this literally the 11th hour to hit the students on their heads? The Education Minister may have played politics with the numbers but he has a point that the entry examinations by the DU, unless altered, would ruin the future of the students. Nevertheless he made another serious faux pas while underlining a point that the public would like to accept. He has threatened that unless DU authorities are responsible, the government would have to change the laws. Is the Minister trying to tell that DU admissions would henceforth be decided politically!

Both sides are playing with the future of students who have been caught in the middle of politics. DU authorities cannot simply take the lofty pedestal and wash off its hands by saying their entry systems is “modern” and leave the students in the lurch. It must find a way to take the students to fill the seats it has for admission to deal with the present situation. However, it and the Education Ministry must sit down together with the other stakeholders with what Dr. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury has flagged and come out with a long-term solution. This should be for the government a more important agenda than any of its others issues at hand because education is the backbone of the country and politics, dirty politics, has pushed it to the edge of the precipice.

The writer is a career Ambassador. His email id is

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