Major General Dr Ataul Hakim Sarwar Hasan joined Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP) as the vice-chancellor on March 3 this year. He had less than a month to prepare for a pandemic-time campus life. Under his leadership, BUP was able to continue educational activities as per the academic calendar without even a single-day interruption. In a recent interview with The Business Standard, he elaborated on BUP's uninterrupted academic journey during the global crisis.
TBS: What was your initial plan when the government announced closure of educational institutions amid the spread of Covid-19?
AHSH: The midterm exams of the first semester were completed on March 12. We were preparing to celebrate the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the meantime, the announcement on the closure of educational institutions from March 18 was made. Initially, on that day (March 15), I called a deans' committee meeting. In the military, we often say, "When going gets tough, the tough gets going." In a similar way, we decided to pursue a decisive strategy to focus on the university's uninterrupted academic journey amid the daunting and uncertain challenges of Covid-19.
Our priorities were, and still are, avoiding session jams as well as ensuring quality education for our students. We wanted to keep our students engaged through online academic activities, thus indirectly providing a psychological relief to them and their guardians.
TBS: BUP completed the academic syllabus during the pandemic without any interruption. Please elaborate on the entire process of how it was done.
AHSH: Yes, it is very satisfactory that BUP has completed the first semester of the ongoing academic year and is presently conducting the second one. Following directives of the University Grants Commission and the education ministry, the first semester's final exams were suspended. When the campus reopens, we will take face-to-face review classes and impart hands-on training before arranging final exams.
Since 2016, BUP has been using a locally developed information and communication technology platform named UCAM where students get their class schedules and reading materials. During the pandemic, fortunately, the platform helps as a substitute for classroom learning. Class lectures have been modified in a way that is suitable for online delivery.
Along with UCAM, we use other tools and apps like Google Classroom, Google Duo, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Facebook live, YouTube live, etc. We also maintain connections through WhatsApp, email, Viber, and other available platforms whenever we find them convenient. All the faculty members are provided with laptops.
To date, we have been able to maintain our academic calendar without losing even a single day. Besides the deans' committee meeting, BUP has conducted meetings of the senate, the academic council, the finance committee, the proctorial and disciplinary committee, and the syndicate.
To help students avail internet data, reading materials, and required tools like laptops and smartphones, we have given Tk10,000 in stipend to more than 400 students each with special needs. Tuition fees of 841 students were waived at a range of 25-100%, and 50% of dormitory charges was waived for all residential students. From the second semester, students have been supported by internet data. The university has made an arrangement so that students can purchase laptops in instalments at 35-40% discount. We have provided three out of the 10 instalments. All the support has been allocated from the welfare fund.
The impacts are quite positive. Students' participation has grown to more than 95% in contrast to the normal situation with a gross attendance of 80%. BUP's uninterrupted academic journey is highly appreciated by many, particularly the parents.
TBS: Were the co-curricular activities hampered? How did the teachers and students cope with online learning in absence of direct classroom interactions?
AHSH: Initially, our co-curricular activities were hampered. However, from the second week of the shutdown, we resumed all those activities. There are 21 vibrant clubs at BUP. Every month, at least five webinars were arranged by different clubs and departments. I have participated in some of the programmes, too. Our counselling and placement centre has arranged a number of sessions on stress management and psychological resilience during the pandemic.
With due respect and delicacy, we have observed the National Children's Day, the National Mourning Day, and the Bengali New Year. Indeed, there is difference between face-to-face interactions and online learning. But most of our faculty members as well as the students are young and technology enthusiasts. Initially, there were some issues. But now, they all have accepted this extraordinary situation as normal and are comfortable with the remote learning process.
TBS: How did academic research work continue during the shutdown?
AHSH: We have a centre for higher studies that conducts the PhD and MPhil programmes. During the pandemic, we are continuing all our research work online. Regular online classes, webinars and sessions with supervisor are being held. We are also conducting seminars maintaining health safety measures.
However, researchers requiring primary data from outdoor are facing some difficulties. This is an extraordinary situation and the BUP authority is considering that.
TBS: Do you think BUP's pandemic-time model is worth following by other educational institutions? What are the logistical requirements to do so?
AHSH: I would not suggest anything for any educational institution. Every institution wants to give their best to the students. I hope they can take necessary measures according to their capacity.
The only thing I can say about the BUP model is we have proved that this is implementable. There may be a thousand excuses not to do something, but there will be 10 good reasons to do it. We should always go for the good reasons. BUP has followed the good reasons and proceeded.
TBS: It has been said that the pandemic will affect the future job market. As the academic year in general has been interrupted, what will be the consequences?
AHSH: The job market has already been affected by the pandemic. Its impact will further shrink new job opportunities. But that would be only for a few months. I hope job opportunities will again open in different fields.
The students whose academic life was interrupted will be affected. For them, there will be a delayed entry to the job market. Our final-year students will finish their studies by January next year and they will also face such hardship if the situation does not become normal. However, they will have an advantage as their studies would be completed at that time unlike students of other universities.
On behalf of the university, I have been participating in online discussions with many corporate officials and talking to them to open job opportunities for graduates.
TBS: Do you think the new normal in campus life will be completely different once the university reopens?
AHSH: I wish the campus life would be the same during the new normal. Certainly, there will be some changes, but those cannot be termed completely different. Normalcy will come with more positive spirits.
BUP will soon incorporate the world-class learning management software Doodle to facilitate online programmes. We are also developing our e-library. There will be hybrid media, for example, a mix of online and physical classes, in near future.