No stimulus to save the education sector

No stimulus to save the education sector

A demand was made by 19 student and cultural organisations of Jagannath University to provide every student with a monthly supplementary stipend of Tk 1,500 to help them overcome the coronavirus crisis. They reasoned that Jagganath University had no student halls and the students would have to pay house rent or rent for their accommodation at messes. Many of they would earn enough to pay the rent by providing tuition and teaching at coaching centres. But this source of income had halted because of coronavirus. Previously Jagannath College had student halls but those had been taken over by powerful people.

The student organisations said that the students should be provided with this stipend for at least six months. Jagannath University had 16,917 students. So, that would cost the government around Tk 152.25 million (Tk 15 crore 22 lakh 53 thousand) in total. That is really not much to pay for 17,000 students in a country which had a budget of Tk 5,680 billion (Tk 5 lakh 68 thousand crore).

And the problem is not just of Jagannath University alone. Students of other public universities suffer similarly. At the outset of the pandemic in the country, the university authorities shut down the halls in fear of the virus spreading. Many students had no alternative but to go to their homes in various parts of the country.

Recently online classes have begun, but many students are deprived for these facilities. A Dhaka University teacher said that he has 92 students in his class, but only 42 attend online classes. Of the remaining 50, 30 did not have internet facilities where they were. The students said that if they use video calls, they spend about Tk 40 to Tk 50 per class, which they cannot afford.

Educationists recommend that free internet service be provided.

This is the predicament of the public universities. The private universities have even more problems. Many students have sent emails to Prothom Alo, appealing for a reduction in tuition fees. They say it is not possible for them to pay full tuition fees during the pandemic. If they drop a semester, they will fall back in their studies. If their fees are reduced, it will be easier for them to continue with their studies.

On the other hand, the private university authorities say that the institutions run on tuition fees from the students. If they do not pay their fees, the universities will not be able to pay the teachers and other staff. They will not be able to cover their administrative costs.

Vice chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts (ULAB), HM Jahirul Haque, said that their expenditure has not lessened by even a penny, but their income has waned. If tuition fees are lessened, he said, many universities will close down.

He said the private universities will be able to survive if the government provides loans as well as tax cuts. He also suggested student loans.

Sources say that during the coronavirus crisis, top ranking private universities in the country have seen a 15 to 25 percent drop in students. The other universities see an ever bigger drop.

Schools and colleges are going through hard times to. In a Prothom Alo report by senior correspondent Mustak Ahmed on 3 August, ‘Dilemma over school and college fees,’ it was pointed out that the crisis was not just about fees. The educational institutions, teachers, students, everyone was faced with a crisis. Yet the government remained silent.

All educational institutions in the country have been shut down since 18 March due to coronavirus. This closure is likely to be extended further if the situation does not improve.

This institution has 800 staff members, including teachers. Of them, 166 are MPO-enlisted and receive their basic pay from the government. The others are paid by the institution. The principal said, if the students’ fees are not paid, how will the teachers and other staff be paid?

Guardians of the English medium school South Breeze on Monday formed a human chain with a five-point demand, including a 50 percent cut in school fees. Guardians of several other schools had previously staged similar demonstrations. None on the institutions have reduced their fees. Many of the teachers complain that even though the institutions are taking full fees from the students, they are not paying the teachers fully.

The bottom line is. The government must come forward and do something to save education.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, there are 13.4 million students studying at the secondary level in the country. There are 21,000 schools, of which around 90 percent are non-government. There are around 4,500 colleges with around 4.4 million students. Most of these are non-government too. There are around 17.5 million students at the primary level but as most of the primary schools are government schools.

The English medium schools, kindergartens and non-government secondary schools face the most problems. The non-government secondary school MPO-enlisted teachers are paid from government funds. The rest are paid by the institutions. Many non-government schools are unable to pay their teachers’ salaries. Many kindergartens have closed down. There are reports of teachers, having lost their jobs, now selling fruit or running grocery stores. Some are working as masons’ assistants, some have become hawkers. It is shameful, indeed, for the nation.

Kindergartens in Bangladesh no longer cater to just the wealthy. Over the past few years, innumerable kindergartens have cropped up all over the country where children of the lower income and poor families study. Various surveys indicate that many students will drop out during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020-21 budget has no allocation to retrieve education from these dire straits. The government has provided the readymade garment sector which a massive stimulus. It is providing assistance to the small and medium entrepreneurs. There is stimulus for migrant workers too. There is also an increase in assistance for agriculture. But the government offers no stimulus or assistance to the education sector.

Allocation for the education sector in the 2010-21 budget is only 2.09 percent of the GDP, that is Tk 664 billion (Tk 66,400 crore). Educationists have been demanding that the budget in this sector be 6 percent of the GDP.

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh has the lowest government allocation for education among South Asian countries. Bhutan’s budget allocation for education is 6.6 percent of the GDP (2018), Nepal’s is 5.2 percent (2018), Afghanistan 4.1 percent (2019), Pakistan 2.9 percent (2017) and Sri Lanka 2.8 percent (2017). Ours is 2.09 percent. The government talks about an advanced, prosperous and digital Bangladesh. How can that be possible without increasing allocations in education?

The University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman Abdul Mannan said that there should have been stimulus for the education sector. The government is providing stimulus to the industrial sector and other sectors. But unless an educated population is built up, who will run all of that?

Educationist and writer Syed Manzoorul Islam on Sunday was talking about the overall state of the education sector. He said, “Problems in education must be seen in an overall context. We had called for an allocation of 6 percent of the GDP to be made in the education sector. The government allocated less than half of that.”

He feels there should have been a data base regarding the education sector, specifying how many students studied in government institutions, how many in non-government institutions, how many were facing difficulties because of coronavirus, what sort of assistance did the different students require, etc. The government could draw this up in a month if it wanted. But the UP chairmen or members could not be given the responsibility to draw up the lists of students needing assistance. The teachers would have to be given this task.

Syed Manzoorul Islam said that it would be best to provide the assistance in the form of stipends. This would thus not hurt the dignity of the parents. Poor children studying in madrasas would also have to be included in this programme. And non-government educational institutions could be provided with easy-term loans low interest loans to temporarily overcome the crisis.

There are three ministers in the education ministry (one for mass and primary education and two for secondary and higher education, including a deputy minister). Some private universities have provided laptops. The government can provide support in this regard. The government had previously taken initiative to distribute 10,000 laptops, but the project failed due to corruption. So, one is hesitant to suggest another such project.

The bottom line is. The government must come forward and do something to save education.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at sohrabhassan55@gmail.com. This article appeared in the Prothom Alo online edition and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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