Universities in Bangladesh are not yet capable of conducting their academic activities online due to lack of technical facilities and funds, according to the University Grants Commission (UGC).
All schools, colleges, and universities of the country have been closed since March 18 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, increasing the impetus for online education systems. Academic programs for students of class VI to class X began airing on national television from March 28, from 9am to 9pm.
The UGC has conducted an online survey on the effectiveness of online higher education over the past two months, with the aim of formulating an â€œOnline Education Learning Policyâ€ for the current situation as well as the future. A letter on the results of the survey was sent to the Education Ministry on Thursday,â€ UGC Chairman Prof Kazi Shahidullah said.
The letter suggested the provision of free internet and other facilities for the universities so that a sustainable online education system could be developed.
In May, the ministry had sought, from the UGC, a tentative financial framework and estimated cost for providing universities with IT facilities, infrastructure and other related support for online academic activities.
After Education Minister, Dipu Moni asked vice-chancellors of all universities about their ability to conduct online classes, only three universities responded that they were already conducting classes online. The public universities are Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST), Pabna University of Science and Technology (PUST) and Jashore University of Science and Technology (JUST).
On the other hand, four leading public universities under ordinance 1973 - Dhaka University, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), Jahangirnagar University, and Chittagong University â€“ said they are not interested in conducting online classes during the pandemic.
They added that they would only conduct online classes if the government could provide all the necessary facilities.
The vice-chancellors of two of these universities told that online classes would deprive students who are now staying in their villages, without internet connections and smartphones. The pandemic situation has also cut the incomes of many of these studentsâ€™ guardians.
In May, Buet VC Prof Saiful Islam wrote to the ministry that around 70% of the students are able to participate in online classes, but not at all the time, and the rest do not have internet facilities.
UGC member Prof Dil Afroza Begum said: â€œLet alone the others, when a top engineering university like Buet says they are not ready, we cannot suggest online classes. Many universities have a weaker infrastructure.â€
Prof Dil Afroza, who is a former teacher of Buet, leads the committee to formulate the Online Education Learning Policy.
She said: â€œWe have left out the financial aspects of private universities, but the public universities have a lot of meritorious students who are from poor families. These students are future assets. How could they survive during such a pandemic?
â€œThe reality is Bangladesh is not ready for online classes. However, this is a great chance to bring major changes to our education system and restructure it to meet relevant requirements,â€ she added.
â€œAfter considering all factors and speaking with teachers and students of both public and private universities, we are working so that all kinds of institutions can run under a unique online education policy for the present as well as the future,â€ Prof Afroza further said, mentioning that they have held several meetings with World Bank and Asian Development Bank regarding funding.
World Bank has assured the government of providing technical support and ADB will help students with free internet facility till September, she said.
On May 10, the UGC held a meeting with World Bank and submitted a project proposal to ensure education quality. The project was previously finalized.
ADB will approve their agreement on June 18 and the UGC will take a decision on implementing the facility after meetings with the Education Ministry.
UGC Secretary Dr Ferdous Zaman said: â€œADB also agreed to our proposal but need time for approval. When every requirement is fulfilled, then we can conduct online classes.
â€œWe told the government that if any student is left behind, then the online program would be an incomplete one and would hamper the studentsâ€™ academic life,â€ added the UGC secretary.
Recently, Deputy Minister for Education Mohibul Hassan Chowdhury Nowfel told the World Bank had proposed providing digital tools, including laptops and other facilities, to public universities during pandemic situations.
â€œThe project is now under processing for implementation,â€ he said.
Survey findings, suggestions, solutions to the ministry by UGC
The UGC letter to the Education ministry included 365 pages of findings, analysis and suggestions, as well as several guidelines so that the ministry could take proper decisions regarding the matter.
Around 19,000 students and 7,000 teachers took part in the online survey.
The UGC has divided the findings into two categories- hardware and software requirements. These include financial problems, digital tools, teacher training for the online classes, lack of content, boosts to the Zoom Application, and facilities of the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN) to help with the ICT Ministry.
Prof Dil Afroze said UGC also sent a tentative financial framework to the Education Ministry.
â€œDespite our proposal, the solutions and findings are at the primary level. We have to discuss these with all the VCs and the ministry further. We will soon call virtual meetings,â€ she said.
Another UGC member Prof Muhammed Alamgir said the UGC only can give suggestions and guidelines, but the authority of the universities and their academic council will take the final decision on how and when they could or would implement the guidelines.