In Dhaka University's B (Kha) unit entrance exam for 2020-2021, Alim candidate Md Zakaria topped, scoring 100.5 out of 120. Meanwhile, Rafid Hasan Safwan stood first in the B (Kha) unit of the combined admission test this year. Both students attained Alim degrees from Darunnazat Siddikia Kamil Madrasah under the Madrasah Board.
Madrasah students ranking at the top in DU admission tests, especially in B and D units, have become a constant phenomenon over the last few years. Besides Zakaria and Safowan, around 21 students secured their seats in the B unit exam from the same madrasah, including 4th, 14th, 36th and 57th positions.
In the 2019-20 season, Tamirul Millat Kamil Madrasah's student Abdullah topped in the D unit (Humanities). Moreover, Abdur Rahman Mazumdar and his younger brother Abdullah Mazumdar stood first in the B unit test in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 season respectively. Both had passed Alim from Tamirul Millat Kamil Madrasah.
In the 2017-18 season, a record number of students from madrasah backgrounds got enrolled at the University of Dhaka from B unit.
Undoubtedly, individual merit and dedication are pivotal factors behind any academic achievement. But the fact that a number of students from a certain stream of education in the country, and more specifically, from a handful of institutions, are doing exceptionally well in a specific field of higher education, merits a much closer look.
Abdur Rahman Mazumdar believes the residential culture of madrasah education helps students achieve ranks. Rahman ranked first in both B and D units in the 2014-15 session and attained both LLB and LLM degrees with distinction.
"There are residential systems in most of the madrasahs in Bangladesh. Therefore, the students follow a very strict discipline in madrasah halls. I believe this disciplined lifestyle helps some students focus more on studies," Rahman said.
"To study social science, a student must have the ability to ask questions. It is the duty of their past institutions, be it college or madrasah, to help them gain this ability. So, reforms should be undertaken to make students think critically, not to guide them to memorise notes and books" - Professor Tanzimuddin Khan
Rahman also put a great emphasis on the academic curriculum of the Madrasah Board.
"Compared to the HSC syllabus, an Alia madrasah student has to prepare for additional 200 marks for his Alim examination. We study a set of different subjects which requires both memorising and analytical abilities to pass the finals. Since Alim students have to study two additional subjects, including an extra language, it is easier for them to get accustomed to the pressure of admission preparation," Rahman opined.
Rafid Hasan Safwan believes the distinct subjects in the Alim curriculum like AL Fiqh ( Islamic jurisprudence), Balagat (Rhetoric), Mantik (Logic) help students formulate an analytical ability and widen their attention span.
"In the previous years, B and D unit preparations were mostly memorisation based. Now that the authority has added the creative writing part in the examinations, it requires both language skill and analytical ability to write instantly. Not directly, but our curriculum definitely aids us to hone in this analytical ability," he added.
It would however be premature to attribute the success of the likes of Mazumder and Safwan completely to the Madrassah education system. Most of the successful students appear to come from a handful of Madrasas.
In suburban and rural areas, madrasah students are yet to stand out.
According to Bangladesh Education Statistics 2016, published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), there are currently 10,450 Alia madrasahs in Bangladesh, with over two million students enrolled in programs, ranging from primary to post-graduate.
According to a report published in The Daily Star, three of four madrasah aforementioned students remain jobless, including those from Qawmi madrasas.
While the country is leaning towards a more pragmatic and modern education system, 76 of the 119 madrasahs in Dhaka districts do not have any Alim-level students studying science, according to the Bangladesh Madrasah Education Board.
Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, says madrasah students are succeeding disproportionately in the Humanities subjects because of some socio-economic factors.
"In urban institutions, including district-level institutions, humanities studies are highly ignored as students with privilege mostly prefer science and commerce. Therefore, rural students are bound to study humanities because they barely have other options because of financial constraints," he says.
According to him, this phenomenon compels Madrasah students to prepare themselves for B and D unit admission tests from a very early age. In general, parents prefer madrasah education for either financial or religious reasons.
Alim candidates generally secure higher grades and pass rates than HSC candidates. Since secondary and intermediate grades contribute 80 marks to the 200 mark admission test, this higher rate also benefits the madrasah (Alia) students.
"Intermediate results alone add 50 valuable marks to their overall score," Professor Tanzimuddin Khan added.
In the 2018 academic year, 66.64 percent of students passed HSC and equivalent examinations, whereas, 78.67 percent of students passed the Alim examination under the Madrasah board. In 2019, 73.93 percent of students passed HSC and equivalent examinations, while the madrasah board managed a better performance with an 88.56 percent pass rate.
Since 2015, madrasah (Alia) students have been allowed to study any social science or arts subject at the University of Dhaka after a reformation in the Alim and Dakhil curriculum. However, questions still remain about whether the madrasah education system is adequate for students to be fully prepared for higher studies, despite the clear success of some of the schools and their students.
"To study social science, a student must have the ability to ask questions. It is the duty of their past institutions, be it college or madrasah, to help them gain this ability. So, reforms should be undertaken to make students think critically, not to guide them to memorise notes and books," says professor Tanzimuddin Khan.
Dr Kazi Shahidullah, chairman of the University Grants Commission, said, "Even 20-25 years ago, regular stream students used to rank top in the respective units. However, madrasah (Alia) students standing top in the entry tests is very appreciative."
But entry-level exams are held to assess a student's merit required for a seat in a public university. So, we must look beyond this admission hurdle and bring reformations aligned with 21st-century soft skills."
Regarding the prospect of aligning madrasah to a unitary system, Dr Shahidullah opined that it is high time we focused more on minimising differences between streams.
"Madrasah education (Alia and Qawmi) has some distinct subjects and courses related to religion. Considering its objectives, tech-based knowledge and skills should be exposed to them, as seen well in other streams. It will help talented madrasah students in both pursuing university education and preferred jobs," he added.
Dr Shahidullah also emphasised that there is a persistent gap between institutions of the same streams. Filling the gap between rural and urban educational facilities is a challenge that must be addressed through adapting a relatively common curriculum.
The recent performances of a few Alia madrasah students motivates many other madrasah students to prepare for higher education in public universities. The result of the 2020-21 B unit entry test is once again proof that mainstream education is getting popular among madrasah students every day. Given that, it is high time we focused more on assimilating these students with mainstream education.