The greatest crisis for the education sector right now is getting our students back to the classroom. For more than a year, our students are out of the classroom. An entire year has been wiped off their lives and there's no sign of that changing any time soon.
But was this learning loss inevitable? I don't think so.
In this era of modern technology, we could have taken classes and exams online. We could have assigned home-works based on which we could have published the results online. Apart from the laboratory experiments, which require offline presence, it was quite possible to accomplish.
Yes, there were difficulties. Teachers had to be equipped with pertinent technology, like smartphones, laptops etc. that would allow them to take classes online. They needed to be trained in online media platforms like Google classroom, Zoom etc. thoroughly. The collaboration of the government, the UGC and the Ministry of Education were required to come up with a plan to train teachers and supply them with additional resources.
Initially, it would have taken some time to kick start but eventually, it would have helped our teachers and students.
That is not to say that it was all hopeless. Some institutions, schools and colleges and individual departments did initiate online classes soon after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. But these efforts were spontaneous, sporadic and no holistic approaches were to be seen.
There was another way to deal with the learning loss as well. If the government or relevant authorities could provide clear information on the reach of Covid-19 to certain areas, we could arrange selective offline classes for regions with low infection rates or high vaccination rates. Students and teachers who had been vaccinated could be allowed to enter classes.
In both cases, there were some preconditions, i.e., access to smartphones, computers, stable internet access etc. that could not be satisfied in all parts of the country. Despite these deficiencies, it was possible to at least incorporate the majority of students in an online-based learning system.
It was reported that 160 million mobile phones were being used in the country and it is safe to assume that most students had access to at least one smartphone. Even if they did not, other measures could have been introduced to integrate them. For instance, to accommodate the students belonging to marginalised communities, the Upazilla/Union level ICT centres could have been utilised.
To attain this, there had to be coordination among the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development. The Ministry of Education could have led the effort.
Since they failed to do so, we ended up with this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situation.
Hence, now we have to take approaches tailor-made to specific circumstances. If we have a high number of vaccinated students, we can reopen the schools and universities. If we observe spikes in infection rates, then we might have to prioritise online classes. If neither physical nor online classes are possible – particularly in rural, peripheral communities – then we have to postpone the classes until further notice. But all of these options must remain open to make sure that at least the education of the vast majority of students would keep on progressing.
So, what can we do now? The government recently introduced a two-week lockdown citing the outbreak of the Delta variant from July 23 to August 05. If this lockdown period is extended beyond the given timeline, we may have to take the exams online. If it is not extended, then we can conduct physical exams provided we can vaccinate the vast majority of the students on a priority basis. But if that doesn't seem plausible, we may have to pursue online exams.
The Ministry of Education, the UGC and relevant authorities can take exams based on shorter syllabus considering the lack of classes available to students, especially for the career-defining exams like the SSC, HSC, Honors and Masters final. Taking prompt steps to conduct these exams can curb the learning loss to a certain extent.
The Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be a disaster for our education system. But it was avoidable and could as well prove to be a blessing in disguise if we had taken the opportunities, albeit under immense pressure to develop new online capacity.
The online education platform is vast and there are so many websites or channels like Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy among others that could have played a crucial role in educating our youngsters. We could make these lectures available to our students. A university student from Dhaka could participate in a lecture from a Harvard University Professor through these platforms. And this can still be done.
But that would require a lot of money, infrastructural development in terms of electricity, stable internet connection, accessibility to smartphones as well as mobile data. Students should be provided with financial assistance to be able to afford required smart devices.
To execute all of these, the budget in the education sector had to be much higher. The current ratio of the education budget to GDP stands at 2.08% which is quite low. As per the suggestions from the last education commission report in the 2010s, the budget for education had to be increased each year to reach 6-8% of the GDP by 2020. Unfortunately, we did not do that and we are facing the consequences.
On top of that, there are varying strands of education in Bangladesh like the public institutions, private institutions as well as the Madrasah education system. While the public institutions are receiving subsidies from the government, the private institutions cannot run if the students cannot attend school. If the schools remain closed, the students will not pay their fees and the schools will not be able to pay their teachers. And so it is not surprising that we have seen so many teachers sliding into poverty during the span of the pandemic.
In the recent budget, the government has introduced several Covid-19 packages addressing the large industries, RMG as well as the SME sectors. Apart from that, there is also the plan to introduce a cash transfer package to ensure social security.
Part of this social security package can be dedicated to vulnerable teachers and students so they can go through their days with a bit of ease. Credit support programmes like small education loans can be provided at a low interest rate so that students and teachers can buy necessary equipment for online-based education. In short, we need to start treating the Covid-19 pandemic as a blessing in disguise and develop a master plan to revamp our education system.
The author is the chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Dhaka