Dhaka city offers little to no open space for the mental and physical development of children. So, naturally, students of the city would be excited to see the considerably vast open space of Dhaka Oxford International School and College, if it were their own campus.
Launched primarily as a college in 2015, the educational institution is set up on approximately eight katha of land with two 2-storey buildings.
Its advertising sign boards hint that Dhaka Oxford is the first of the institutions in Bangladesh to have approval from the Ontario government's educational ministry. And the students, of school and college, have air-conditioned classrooms with free Wifi connections.
All the above-mentioned facilities should have been enough to attract students. But Dhaka Oxford lacks 'students' – probably because it lacks the minimum quality an educational institution should have.
In 2022, 27 Dhaka Oxford students of science, arts and commerce groups registered for the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) exam. Only three appeared at the examination centre. None of them passed.
At Dhaka Oxford, the school section has 170 students, while the college currently has 30 students who will sit for the 2023 HSC exam.
During our visit, we actually found a few school students in olive-green shirts, red shoulder badges and black trousers. But the college students were invisible. Even their classrooms were locked.
We spoke to a guardian who was accompanying his second-grader son home from the Dhaka Oxford campus.
"Most of the time, my wife accompanies our son. I had little idea about the institution. Now I have realised that this is not a good school. I will soon transfer my son to another school," the guardian said, preferring anonymity.
We found a young lady on the first floor who teaches school students. She didn't know anything about the affairs of the college.
So where can we find college teachers? She advised us to talk to the principal.
After several hide-and-seek attempts, Principal Shahabuddin Mazumder was finally found in his messy office room.
Piles of answer sheets – bundled and labelled 2022 HSC exam – were crammed on the room floor. Shahabuddin said he is the head examiner of Bangla under the Dhaka Education Board.
Interestingly, the walls were covered with posters of several singers, both newcomers and prominent artists. There were framed photos of Shahabuddin taking crests from some celebrities. One of the showcases exhibited a collection of cassette tapes and CD disks.
"I am a lyricist and musician. Except for Runa Laila, all renowned singers have sung songs written by me. Almost all the conventional songs played at government events at present were composed by me," Shahabuddin claimed, adding that he is a very active member of the Bangabandhu Sangskritik Forum.
He was clearly exaggerating his fame.
We wanted to know about Dhaka Oxford, where he serves as the top administrator.
"Dhaka Oxford students' pass rate remained 70% until the 2022 HSC exam. In 2022, the college itself paid the registration and exam fees of 27 students. But only three of them received admit cards. We found the rest missing when we went to their homes. Unfortunately, the three students failed in all subjects," Shahabuddin said.
The Principal presumes that at least eight of the 'disappeared' students had migrated to Saudi Arabia and Dubai.
We asked for the 27 students' contact information such as cell phone numbers. Earlier, he said he had communicated with all the students to motivate them before the HSC exam. We enquired about the banking documents, as he claimed the college authority had paid all the dues and fees on behalf of the students.
"I have no records. You can find them in Hanif sir's possession," Shahabuddin replied.
SM Abu Hanif is the vice principal and the founding chairman of Dhaka Oxford. According to Shahabuddin, Hanif, who is involved with the Ramna Thana unit Awami League, pays the subsidies required to run the institution.
We contacted Hanif over the phone. He was visibly upset at having received a call from a newspaper. He said he had been on sick leave for the last two months.
"Talk to the principal. He will answer your questions," Hanif concluded.
The day we spoke to the principal face-to-face, Shahabuddin looked happy, as he had just secured the position of 'editor' of a newspaper called 'Dainik Sangbad Samachar.' He was expected to start at his newly appointed job soon.
He proudly said, "The approval came within one and half months of application."
Shahabuddin said he was a journalist too. "For more than two decades, I worked as a lead at many news media including Dainik Prime, Bangla Bazar, Binadan Dhara and Ananda Bhuban."
How can you manage your time as a college principal, musician and journalist? We questioned.
He smiled and replied, "I am going to open a new institution named Dhaka Bangla College at Aftab Nagar. It has already been approved by the Education Board. Its infrastructure has been developed. It will be open to students soon."
As promising as that sounded, we inquired further about the current state of affairs at Dhaka Oxford College. Will your 30 intermediate students be successful in the 2023 HSC exam? "Why not? The bad image will vanish. Failure in 2022 was accidental. The media is exaggerating the issue," Principal Shahabuddin confidently explained.
We asked a series of questions. Such as who will guide the students? Because a web page of the Dhaka Education Board shows Dhaka Oxford International College has only four teachers, including Shahabuddin and Hanif.
TBS emailed the other teachers but they did not reply.
"How ridiculous? Maybe the board didn't update our information. We have 24 teachers, including some part-timers," the Principal said.
Where have the teachers gone? Where are your college students? Shahabuddin replied, "I have declared a holiday of seven days because of renovation work."
We, however, didn't find any holiday announcement on Dhaka Oxford's notice board.