Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
       Volume 10 |Issue 24 | June 24, 2011 |


 Cover Story
 One Off
 Current Affairs
 Straight Talk
 Writing the Wrong
 Star Diary
 Book Review

   SWM Home

Cover Story

Classrooms Lack Lustre

Higher education is one of the few fundamental indicators of a country's prosperity. With quality of education remaining where it was a hundred years ago, that indicator seems to lead us nowhere in a fast changing world where knowledge, of science and humanities alike, is considered power.

Rifat Munim

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

After his HSC exams were over Russel, with a sigh of relief, thought that the days of memorising cheap notes and regurgitating them at the exams were finally no more. It was the mountainous load of those perfunctorily written notes that pained him the most because at times he had to learn them by heart without even a shallow understanding of what he was memorising. Therefore, having bidden farewell to his college life, he was all set for stepping into a university which for him was a voyage to self-discovery, a scintillating journey to the unknown wherein the banal task of learning by rote would be done away with to spark off his imagination and creative urges. Accordingly, he enrolled in the biggest and most reputed university of the country. Two years have passed since. He, however, already sounds disillusioned and all his enthusiasm has dissipated. Instead of an innovative method kindling the thirst for knowledge and facilitating self-evaluation; the old, ugly ghost of thoughtless memorisation is back in giant strides again.

Students of DU discussing different aspects of a topic with each other before a viva voce.

The unavoidable grip of student politics has not shocked Russel, a second-year student of Chemistry at Dhaka University (DU). But the quality of education certainly has. Most of all, it has stripped him of motivation and passion towards learning. “As I came from a college in town, politics was nothing new to me. However, the tedious, age-old system was definitely a shock that offered us nothing creative to facilitate understanding or go deeper into the subject. Eventually I found myself in the same boring trap of attending classes, memorising sheets and sitting for exams. If you don't memorise, you do badly in exams. This is what disappointed me so much that I don't feel encouraged anymore to work out things on my own,” he says.

A K Azad Chowdhury, chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and also former vice-chancellor of DU, acknowledges that this trend exists rampantly among the public universities and says that overall performance of tertiary education depends on the quality and dedication of teachers, scientific curriculum, society's responsibility towards the academia and financial support.

“Enrolment of students at the university level has considerably increased. It is a very good sign provided that they get quality education. Otherwise they will backfire turning it into our burden.”

Building up dreams around the university and then seeing them being shattered is not unique only to Russels's experience. Shanto (not his real name), a third-year student of Physics at DU, thought that the teacher-student relationship in university would be predicated upon friendly interaction, not dread. Much to his disappointment, at DU he found it worse than the National University where at least exam papers of one college are delivered to teachers of another college to ward off any possibility of nepotism or retaliation.

A K Azad Chowdhury

Mustafa (not his real name), a fourth-year student of Fisheries and Marine Resource Technology Discipline at Khulna University (KU), echoes Shanto saying that in the absence of student politics, the teachers enjoy absolute power since the university's inception and maintains a school-like interaction with students. On condition of anonymity, a third-year student of Forestry and Wood Technology Discipline and a second-year student of Architecture Discipline of KU say that they are not allowed to raise their voice regarding anything and if they do, the teachers never deter from imposing the harshest punishment in the form of fine or suspension. Besides, the same trend of memorisation is also prevalent there.

“Except for one or two teachers, most others especially the comparatively younger ones provided us with sheets (hand outs) and we swallowed them, and if we didn't, we lost points,” says Kanika, an ex-student of Agrotechnology Discipline at KU.

Dr Mizanur Rahman, dean of the life science school at KU, denies all allegations against the teachers and says that all the disciplines in the life science school involve many tours, field work and practical sessions which altogether ensure creative involvement of students and also their friendly interaction with teachers.

Syed Rezaur Rahman

The lab, mandatory for most of the departments in the science faculty where students get a chance to connect theory with practice, promises nothing different across the public universities mainly because its effectiveness depends on the good intentions of the teachers which in most cases are scarcely visible. As for the tutorials (sessions which carry marks/grades and are supposed to ensure meaningful interaction between teachers and students), they are not unlike the lab outputs.

“Effective output of both labs and tutorials depend on the extent to which students can interact freely with the teachers. If we are scared to ask questions in the lab, then how will we ever learn freely? How will we ever get the answer to our question?” complains Russel of DU.

In this connection, dean of the science faculty at DU could not be reached. However, Syed Rezaur Rahman, registrar of DU, refutes the students' claims. Instead, he holds the students responsible for their indifference to studies and lack of inquisitiveness.

He demands: “Tell me how many students go to the library? If they don't come up with creative questions in the classroom, then why should the teachers feel like getting some prior preparation?” He also denies allegations against the teachers' aggressive reaction.

The science faculty, Dhaka University.

In a move to reform the system, some major universities including DU, Jahangirnagar University (JU) and Rajshahi University (RU) sought reformation by introducing a semester system. But as students of KU (where semester system was introduced ever since its inception) articulate, unproductive exchange between teachers and students persist unless a combined effort on the parts of both is made.

“This reformation is rather causing problems for us as well as for the students because it was not initiated into all departments, so now there are two systems running,” says Rahman. Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury thinks that the older system had all the potential to ensure creative practices. “The problem always lies in enforcement of a system,” he says.

However, things are not as bad for students of the applied sciences such as Statistics and Applied Physics of DU. Hasib, a third-year student of Statistics, says that a major part of their studies consists of hands-on knowledge of their subject, a condition which somehow compels the teachers to conduct the lab as well as the classes properly. Their demand in the job market is also a factor that keeps them motivated, adds Hasib. Students of Microbiology at DU and Pharmacy at both DU and KU have taken a similar stance especially with regard to good lab facilities, even though they have admitted to the traditional methods of class teaching and examination. Thanks to the boom of local pharmaceutical industry, their employment opportunities are also high.

The More You Write, the More You Get

Along with the conventional methods of dispensing and swallowing notes, students of arts and humanities reveal quite a stunning trend that has been in vogue for decades. Shetu (not his real name), an honours final year student of Government and Politics at Jahangirn-agar University, says that not only do they memorise like Madrasa students, they also write as much as they can in the final exam. Asked why, he briefly says: the more you write, the more grades you get. In so doing, their long-winded answers lack coherence and unnecessary repetitions, but their teachers' fondness for verbosity over incoherence has made this ill-practice very popular among students.

The Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences which provides lab facilities and modern equipment for scientific research.

“We know what brings extra grades. So we hardly care that most of our teachers come to class for the sake of attending as they teach without any preparation. Sometimes they just come and go while the backbenchers literally fall asleep to while away the time,” he adds.

The mountainous load of memorisation leaves students bored.

Selim (not his real name), a master's student of History at DU complains that there has been no upgrading of the curriculum for years. They are following a long-existing syllabus which is neither interesting nor modern.

“I think there is scope for creative involvement and productive interaction with teachers through tutorials, assignments and so on, but there is no enforcement of these provisions. Truly speaking, students are also responsible to some extent as they always try to avoid creative methods,” he says.

Departments of English Literature across the universities show a common trend. Unlike a handful of senior teachers, most others do not engage students in creative assignments or tutorials or other activities. Instead, they follow the hackneyed interpretation of the selected texts.

“In the first year, I laid stress on understanding and used to read all the recommended references such as the Twentieth Century Interpretation series. But when I found out that those memorising the cheap Indian notes are obtaining higher grades, my perception changed and I began to focus less on understanding and more on memorisation of the cheap notes,” says a student of English Department at Rajshahi University on condition of anonymity.

Students of the commerce faculty skimming through sheets before taking an exam.

“Some of our seasoned teachers focus on understanding and teach each text in details. In the final exam side by side with questions sorted out from the previous years, we also face creative questions based on the detailed discussion in class. Yet, it is true that we are drawn to the available internet sheets and the Indian notes which we hammer into our brains,” says a student of English Department at DU.

Professor Dr Sadrul Amin, dean of arts faculty at DU, admits to some of the unproductive practices. He says faculties should stand firmly against the trend of memorisation and do whatever it takes to make sure that students adopt creative means of study. About the teachers' complaint that students either try to avoid innovative works or blatantly copy and paste when compelled to submit creative assignments, he says, “I believe that if a question is creatively posed, then no one can copy its answers and even if somebody does, they must face the music and lose grades. If a strict trend such as this emerges, students will be made to resort to creativity.”

On the other hand, a number of students from the social science faculty of DU are satisfied with their studies. So are the students of Development Studies and Institute of Education and Research. They say that they have to get involved with many creative assignments as part of different courses. As an example of such a creative course, Zahid Hossain, an honours final year student of Sociology at DU, cites a course in which they have to select a locality and work extensively with local people to work out the existing class structure of that locality, understanding which is not possible without a better understanding of Marxist theory. Another student, however, says that they are no better than other disciplines in matters of creative studies.

More university students are gaining access to IT, yet it needs to be increased.

Come, Do a Presentation and Get a Job

The scenario at the commerce and business studies faculties is a bit different in most universities. Students in these faculties are more enthusiastic and oriented towards their studies. In fact, their increasing demand in the job market dominated by national and multinational companies accounts for their motivation. With a view to sharpening their skills and boosting their confidence, they are made to do frequent presentations. Quite predictably, they do well in the job market. An identical picture is also observed in other faculties especially those that offer good jobs, such as Statistics, Sociology, Pharmacy, among others. In other words, despite the existence of some unproductive methods, the value or demand of a subject in the job market keeps the students motivated.

Envisioning a new model

This fact presents us to a new dimension of the problem and explains the sheer lack of motivation in students. Most of the subjects included in the pure sciences and arts and humanities do not have any job market value. Apart from the colonial model (see box), Serajul Islam Choudhury points out that the lack of co-ordination between most of the subjects and employment opportunities significantly contributes to the dwindling enthusiasm of students. He cites an example: If a student of Physics knows while studying that he will have to end up with a job in a bank; then he will never feel motivated however interesting his/her subject is.

Nurul Islam Nahid

“Although education nurtures free thinking, it has to be related to employment," says Chowdhury, "because a student must expect a healthy economic life after his education is finished. If he fails to secure a job by means of his education, he'll definitely divert his attention from study.”

He, however, stresses that education is an integral part of university life but not the whole. The rest of it must be complemented by cultural and social activities and sports through which students will explore their talents and areas of interest.

Azad Chowdhury opines that in order to create more employment for students of science and arts, the curriculum must be modernised to keep students abreast of the present day requirements.

“IT education should be a must. All subjects in the science and arts faculties should incorporate more technical courses with the aim of producing skilled manpower that would be fit for the job market at home and abroad,” he says.

Education minister Nurul Islam Nahid welcomes the idea of modernising the tertiary level education. He believes that if we cannot break away from the traditional system, we won't be able to make any progress in social and economic terms.

“I'd like to envision a model that will not only make the students well equipped with necessary scientific and IT knowledge, but also will also help flourish their creative faculties fostering in them a patriotic zeal. Keeping this broader vision in mind, we have formulated the national education policy the implementation of which has got underway. But before setting our eyes on the tertiary level, we have to improve the primary education, then secondary and higher secondary levels.”

The education minister, who has brought about remarkable changes in the improvement of primary and secondary education, also draws attention to our colonial mindset that impedes reformation of the education system.

“Whenever it comes to education, people think of obtaining an honours certificate even though that does not relate to his interest or offer any job whereas vocational training and other IT courses are left unattended. It reflects our colonial mindset that sees education as a status symbol, not as a key to national development,” says a despondent Nahid. Asked about any specific step to initiate qualitative change, he mentions the generation of an approximately 800 crore taka fund in association with the World Bank that would be utilised through the UGC to strengthen research in the public universities.

Much as large-scale research works are essential to qualitative change, the elementary act of producing a researcher through proper education should not be glossed over. The vicious circle that has confined higher education to indifference, memorisation and uncertainty can never be conducive to progress and development. Hence, modernisation of the curriculum and incorporation of new, state-of-the-art courses to cope with the job market is of utmost importance. However, all such steps should be preceded by a devoted as well as co-ordinated effort on the part of the teachers to make education a sacred process of self-discovery whereby s/he would learn to evaluate himself against the world.

The Colonial Model

Serajul Islam Choudhury

Serajul Islam Choudhury, emeritus professor of the Department of English at DU and a leading educationist of the country, says that the purpose of higher education is to encourage creativity and arouse an indomitable curiosity for knowledge in students. In the whole process, he adds, independent thinking will be invigorated to shore up originality of the students. However, university education in the Indian Sub-continent, he informs, was installed by the British Raj to placate the frequent incidents of uprisings and resistance. Terming the existing system of tertiary education 'an inherited model', he says:

“The colonisers had specific purposes in mind. In fact, they wanted to create a subordinate Indian class who will help them run the administration smoothly by mediating between them and the colonised. That's why the system they initiated was examination-oriented having nothing to do with originality. Those universities were not teaching or governing bodies but were merely examining bodies much like the model of today's National University. So the emphasis was on examination, not on true learning or creativity. Even after forty years of independence we haven't been able to break free from that colonial model.”

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011