What is more important is that we need to teach the students how to look at themselves, how to look at their relationship with society and the whole world, says the veteran academician in an exclusive interview
TBS: During the pandemic, Brac University launched the Student Assistance Fund to allow its students to continue their education seamlessly. Could you tell us a bit more about the idea behind this and why you decided to keep it running for Fall 2020?
Vincent Chang: Student Assistance Fund has three major components: complete waiver of non-tuition fees for every student, 10 percent financial aid on tuition fee for every student and up to 100 percent financial aid on tuition depending on the seriousness of the financial situation.
The reason behind waiving the non-tuition fee is because right now, we are conducting everything online. We still have some online-based student activities, and we also provide IT and some lab services online. But to make it very simple, I decided to completely waive the non-tuition fee so the students don't have to worry about it.
Everyone has been affected by the coronavirus to some extent. Keeping that in mind, we decided to provide 10 percent financial aid on tuition fees for everyone. However, some have been affected more, and the recent flood has added an extra burden on top of the coronavirus for our students. Thus, we decided to provide up to 100 percent financial aid for the most effected students.
It was not an easy decision for us to keep the fund running during fall, because like other private universities, we are facing very tight financial constraints. We consider the students the center of the university and student experience is extremely important to us. After going through all the pros and cons, the students' welfare overweighs everything, and we decided to keep it running for the fall.
TBS: Student Assistance Fund will keep running throughout the fall semester 2020. Will the components be the same as in the summer?
VC: Yes, the components will be the same. The amount may not be the same, but the components will be.
TBS: Globally, universities are judged by their research work, as much as they are for preparing their students for professional life. But in developing countries like ours, research often takes a backseat. What should be the primary focus of the universities?
VC: If you take universities as a corporation, you want to produce a 'product'. So you are right, we need to conduct research in order to produce knowledge. That is the fundamental function of a university.
The second responsibility I would say is to produce responsible citizens and thinkers for humanity. We need to educate our students so that they can become critical thinkers and become a responsible citizen.
Most people think that students should go to universities to learn technical skills so that they can find a job. This is absolutely right. However, there is a difference between universities and vocational institutions: The vocational institutions focus especially on developing technical skills. But what is more important is that we need to teach them how to look at themselves, how to look at their relationship with society and the whole world.
TBS: The teacher-student ratio is an important concept for universities. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, it is very natural that the number of students will be much greater than the number of teachers. How can we handle this? In other words, how can we reconcile the conflict between quality and quantity?
VC: The ratio needs to be proportionate, but I think the number may not be the most important factor. I think it is more important to hire quality teachers. So if the ratio is off, you can still manage with quality faculty. That is something we have influence on and what we are doing at Brac University.
TBS: In a post-pandemic world, how do you situate online education?
VC: The pandemic took the world by surprise, and every university had to switch online overnight. So, in the short run, we had no choice but to go online. I think in the long run, online education will remain a vital component of education.
I would say, even without the pandemic, in the upcoming years we would have seen online education for sure. The pandemic has just shortened the period of time.
TBS: Do you think taking online classes is enough? Or should we revise the entire system to fit in the digital universe? Also, the existing curriculum and examination systems are not very online friendly. Do you think only conducting classes online without changing the overall curriculum and examination system will work?
VC: This is a very good question. I do believe that we need to revise our curriculum to cope with the digital universe.
Teaching in person is different from delivering lectures online, also, we cannot conduct every lab's courses online. It is still possible with the best use of technology, but it will take time.
In terms of online exams, we still face a lot of challenges. It is very challenging and things will be different than before. I cannot tell you how different exactly. Only time will tell.
TBS: People from all social and economic classes do not have access to higher education. Do you think that if educational activities go online, this existing inequality will increase since people do not have equal access to technology?
VC: The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because of the accessibility and bandwidth issue in the rural areas. If the internet connectivity is poor, a student may not be able to receive a quality lecture.
On the other hand, online classes will open education to a significantly larger group of people, who would otherwise have no access. For example, we have an international student from Afghanistan who wants to attend Brac University. Due to the pandemic, she could not come physically to study here. But, as we have the online platform buX, she is now attending the classes from her own country.
So, when it comes to inequality, it can be reduced by the use of technology. But the university authority cannot do everything alone as we are not the authority to provide a proper internet connection to the students. The regulatory bodies should come forward and help out in this regard.
TBS: Extracurricular and leadership activities are integral parts of higher education. How can these activities be addressed in online education?
VC: This is a very important question. Online education is virtual and virtual means not real. You can do many things online, but there are some things that you cannot do online, like playing team sports or social activities. If students attend classes on campus, they can chat in between, have lunch or dinner together. I call it chance-encountering, and this is an integral part of education.
Social interactions are valuable to train communication skills among peers and to develop leadership abilities. Chance-encountering may not happen virtually. It is very challenging to move these essential life experiences online. Even with the Duke of Edinburgh programme you can move some parts online, but there needs to be face-to-face interaction. 'Online' is not enough.