June 19, 2013 | 02:04 PM (BD Time)
19 June, 2013 Wednesday
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Tertiary education in Bangladesh, problems and prospects
Yousuf Islam :
The essay looks at the state of tertiary education in Bangladesh, in particular private university education. It illustrates the situation with a number of examples taken from day-to-day school and university life. The aim of the essay is to inculcate interest among education researchers to think of innovative ways in which the education delivery methods can be improved to produce graduates who are willing to pool efforts towards the development of the country.
The beginnings of the current tertiary teaching-learning methodology in Bangladesh may be traced to the times of British India. As researched and quoted by Sharfuddin (1996, p.6), in 1835, the then Chairman of the Education Committee of the East India Company, Thomas Rabington Mackle announced, "the objective is to create a class of people Indian in blood and color but English in taste, in opinions, in mind and in intellect." This essentially meant that the British developed a system of higher education in colonial India that basically created only 'munshis' (i.e. clerks) as they were commonly known. Their skill revolved around record and accounts keeping and drafting of documents. This followed the declared education policy of the East India Company which was to create a class of loyal servants to work in offices of the British rulers. Creativity and independent thinking were not required of a loyal servant! Since that time, the region where Bangladesh (earlier known as East Bengal) is situated has faced two wars of independence, one in 1947 when Pakistan (consisting of what is today known as Pakistan together with what is known today as Bangladesh) broke away from India and in 1971 when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. The second war is popularly known as 'War of Independence'. Independence has had little or no positive effect on changing the basic education delivery methodology. So how does this teaching-learning methodology translate into day-to-day classroom teaching? Before looking at tertiary education, one must look into the nature of the 12-years of primary and secondary education that students complete prior to entering the university arena. This is perhaps best illustrated with actual school incidents.
Incident 1: The deputy general manager of a large bank reported that one day when he reached home, his daughter did not come to greet him at the door. Concerned he looked for his daughter. He found her frantically studying for a test. She was repeatedly reading out an essay. She said she had to commit the essay to memory for the coming test. The father read the essay. It was about two tall exercise book pages. It was not his daughter's handwriting. It had 12 spelling mistakes and an equal number of grammatical errors. When the father pointed out the mistakes, the daughter adamantly replied, "Teacher has written it, so it must be right!" This was a local-language-medium school. Nowhere in the school years are children taught self-expression or to write independently. Supporting this culture, International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning booklets of model essays are available to offer students choices on essays to memorize. Not familiar with self-expression, in the school and board exams, children just reproduce these essays.
Incident 2: My own daughter studied in a private English-Medium school. When in grade
in junior school, I was called to the school. It was to discuss a failed test on an English poem. I took along the poem. It was "Silver" by Walter De La Mare. By way of conversation, the section head reflected, "Oh we did this poem in Grade 9!" Responding, I asked, "How then do you expect a child in class 4 to understand the poem?" She was quick to defend the school saying, "Oh but our standard is high!" The school happens to be one of the largest private English medium schools in Bangladesh. As this is one of the earlier English-medium schools, many schools have modeled themselves on the curriculum used by the school. With such "high" standards children have no recourse but to memorize and be totally dependent on the teacher for what to memorize.
Incident 3: Given these problems, a private educational institute with branches all over Bangladesh offered to cure English language woes. The institute produced a booklet for its main English language course. The booklet contained 500 words. With each word a sentence was given. The idea was that the students would learn at least one sentence with each word. They students reproduce the same sentences in the exam and get a certificate!
Incident 4: Similarly, to help students pass exams a tutor culture has grown up over the years. Tutors are available for all sorts of exams, even foreign 'O' and 'A' Level exams that are conducted by the British Council. I was friendly with one such tutor. He taught 'O' Level Commerce. Regardless of background, all his students got top grades almost without exception. So I asked him the secret of his success. He said, "Yousuf, when I started tutoring, I analyzed the past 10 years question papers. I plotted the variations in each topic area and prepared model answers for each variation. I teach my students how to recognize the particular variation and get them to apply the appropriate model answer. This works most of the time with most of the students."
Incident 5: A particular private English medium school is run by a husband and wife team.
The wife is the principal and the husband looks after the school administration and school discipline. For any grade level, for each quarterly exam, the principal provides the teacher with 10 model questions and answers. Each day, the teacher writes a selected question and the answer on the board from this set. The students copy from the board. For homework they reproduce the same question and answer. The quiz and exam questions come from this set of 10 and the students are required to reproduce what was originally written on the board. Almost no student gets less than 90% marks. Within a period of 4 years, the school's enrollment grew to over 4000 students.
To sum up, the education delivery culture forces children to memorize and provides resources to help them memorize. Parents go out of their way to provide their children with funds to go to the "best" tutors - often paying three to four times more than what they have to pay for regular schooling. When the child gets a top grade everyone seems to be happy. It is after 12 years of such schooling that students are eligible for tertiary or university education.
The willingness of parents to dish out for their children's higher education has created a demand that the number of seats in public universities i.e. seats in the state run or government funded universities have not been able to fulfill. The website at Belcampus.org provides a good summary of the tertiary education scenario in Bangladesh since 1971 (i.e. the war of independence). On average, sixty-five people apply for each place or seat at a public university. This demand led to the law titled 'Private University Act of Bangladesh' that was passed in the Bangladesh National Parliament in 1992. The first private university of the country, the North South University, started functioning in the same year. Today the country has 56 such private universities where over 124,000 students pursue their studies.
As market demand would have it, unconfirmed sources reveal that applications for a further 50 private universities are under processing at the University Grants Commission (UGC), the government regulatory body for higher education. Be that as it may, it is now 20 years since private university education started in Bangladesh. It is high time that we take stock of the te
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