Woes of university admission seekers amid political strife

Previously Published: The Business Standard

Shakia Rahman, an admission aspirant from HSC 2023 intake, is now in a dilemma scheduling her study plan for the forthcoming “admission war” — as the Election Commission’s announcement to hold the national polls on 7 January pushed the nation to a political violent turn on streets.

“The result is out. Yet I don’t know when the exams are likely to happen. We are already behind the usual academic schedule because of COVID-19 delays. Now these uncertainties…It is disrupting my study plans. I don’t know how much time I have,” she said.

As the HSC 2023 result was published on 26 November, out of over 13 lakh students across 11 education boards in the country, 92,365 students have achieved GPA-5.

Meanwhile, there are roughly 60 thousand seats available in the county’s government-funded public and engineering universities along with the medical colleges altogether.

Not all of these seats can attract admission seekers as most of the students chase to grab a seat at a top-tier university in a major city – also with a demanding subject.

Shakia has a dream to be a neurosurgeon and so she is eyeing a public medical college now, where the total number of seats is 5,380 – thanks to the government’s recent decision to add 1,030 more seats to these public medical colleges.

“Hundreds of candidates fight for a seat in these medicals, it’s not easy. If I cannot crack it, I have to resort to preparing for other pure subject universities. But the curriculums, subjects, structures, marks distributions differ from one university to another,” she said.

The path to engineering universities often parallels the science department exams at public universities, but the journey to medical college is quite different.

“While the focus on subjects like Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics can cover one’s preparation for institutions like BUET or Dhaka University’s ‘A’ unit, medical college entrance exams are quite different. It includes subjects like Biology and General Knowledge…and there is an MCQ style question pattern,” explained Imtiaz Shorif, a 4th-year MBBS student at Dhaka Medical College, who now also instructs admission preparation classes at a medical coaching centre in the capital.

“Given the limited time at hand, it is important to make every second count. Trying to juggle multiple subjects, syllabus, and question patterns only burdens the mind unnecessarily,” he added.

Talking to The Business Standard (TBS), Imtiaz also highlighted the challenges that students are facing this year because of ongoing political turmoil, particularly students arriving from outer districts to Dhaka solely for admission preparation.

“I have seen a majority number of students come from outside of Dhaka. Their college was in another town. Because of the political situation in Dhaka, I think most of them are struggling to adapt to the city and the situation.

“While taking classes in coaching, I observed some of them as potential, but they are not regular and most of the time, they remain zoned out in classes,” said Imtiaz.

Students new to Dhaka struggling more

“Coming from Gaibandha, adapting to Dhaka’s rhythm was already a challenge for me. The recent political unrest and the hartals – blockades almost every day in a week have added a new layer of complexity to our struggles,” said Samiul Bashar Rifat, a student intending to study at Dhaka University.

Samiul Bashar Rifat stays at a residential hostel in Farmgate, an educational hub famous for its coaching centres, where thousands of admission aspirants come from all parts of the country.

“I feel I am already a little lagged behind than others in the admission race. Every second matters now. The students who were already in Dhaka in their college are getting an extra advantage as they know the hacks and tricks of surviving in this city, I sometimes feel delusional,” he said.

Rifat is not happy with the overall city environment.

It should come as no surprise as a recent report by The Economist ranked Dhaka as the second-least resilient among 25 cities in the world.

However, he does not have to travel through any transport to go back and forth to his hostel and coaching centre, but he had witnessed a few political processions while walking along the Farmgate streets.

“I felt scared when the first time I saw hundreds of people shouting and walking on the street. Most of them had stumps, pipes, sticks, and tree logs in their hand. For a minute I was stunned and could not walk.”

Visiting several hostels in the capital’s Farmgate and Azimpur areas in the capital, and talking with their boarders preparing for admission tests, a sense of fear and uncertainty could be observed.

Rakib Al Hasan, a math instructor at a city coaching centre, went back to his hostel days in Farmgate, highlighting the unlivability of these boarding hostels.

Hailing from Noakhali in 2018, Rakib, who now lives in a 2 bedroom Dhanmondi apartment, chose to live in a Farmgate hostel called “VIP Residence” – which ironically could not serve justice to its name with it’s facilities for residents.

“Water smells really bad as that is purified using fitkari (alum stone) in these hostels. When I was there back in 2018, I couldn’t drink it. Almost every twenty students have to use just three bathrooms downstairs. The situation hasn’t changed much in the last 5 years. There are already so many problems in these hostels for the students,” said Rakib highlighting the added layer of burden this political turmoil has posed on this intake of admission aspirants.

“The class attendance ratio is very low this year. Especially on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. It’s not that fewer students chose our coaching. I think students are afraid of coming out on the street.”

Echoing the fear of his students Rakib added, “I have been living in Dhaka for the last 5 years. I also sometimes have to think twice — which road to take – when. Should I take a bus or hitch a bike ride? Every time I see a ‘fire on bus’ news, a question hits my mind – What if I was there.”

Rakib highlighted a concerning trend this year.

“We have found a lot of students who initially got admitted to a Dhaka branch but later changed their minds and migrated to district branches. I think no parents are feeling safe with their children in this city.”

While the unicorn-like coaching centre Rakib is affiliated with covers almost all the major towns across the country and also has a migration facility, – most other coaching centres either don’t keep that option or don’t even have branches outside Dhaka.

Not a cakewalk for Dhaka residents either

Israt Tory, another admission aspirant living at a shared bachelor flat in the capital’s Dhanmondi, wants to study law at Dhaka University.

Unlike Rifat, she is a little familiar with the cityscape as Tory had her prior study in the capital’s Birshreshtha Noor Mohammad Public College.

However, in a conversation with TBS, Tory said, “I don’t attend all the classes. I take class notes from friends. I know it is weakening my preparation.”

Her extra-cautionary move came as she had recently found herself at a point between life and death during a recent BNP grand rally procession around Dhanmondi. Tory has to go near the Science Lab intersection to attend her coaching.

“I saw a lot of people coming with a procession towards Nilkhet. Suddenly, everyone started running here and there. One middle-aged man told me, ‘Apu, cross the road, it’s not safe on this side’ and he ran away. I was feeling numb. And then I saw a bus being burned. A woman was crying on the street asking for help. I felt like I should come to her rescue. But how could I? It was a chaos,” she said.

“I called my father [who lives in Tangail] and started crying – I even told him to forgive me for everything. I felt like I would die. Since then whenever I see a gathering, I feel suffocated,” said Tory explaining the moment of horror that made her choose safety over soundness in studies.

In the meantime, Tory discovered a solution. She has lately enrolled in an admission package of online-based coaching run by some university students.

“Online coaching is being really helpful for my preparation. But sometimes, I get distracted by YouTube and Facebook. I am familiar with this. During the Covid pandemic, our college used to operate online. Because of this, at least, I am staying on the clock and routine. I think I can still make it,” Tory said, showing confidence that had underlying fears.

Online coaching emerges as a lifeline

E-learning is not a new phenomenon as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the country’s academia online when schools were closed, – classes and exams shifted to the Internet.

Since the pandemic, due to the positive reception from students and parents, there has been an increase in the emergence of online coaching centres in the country’s digital sphere. These platforms primarily focus on admission tests, while some also offer education aligned with the NCTB curriculum.

“Online coaching has been a lifesaver. It has kept me on track with my studies and exam preparation,” said Asma Homayra Raisa, a student from Chandpur.

Raisa’s father Shahadat Hossain said, “I have confidence in my daughter. Even if she can’t make it to a top university – I won’t regret my decision not to send her outside home for physical coaching.

“I can’t risk my daughter’s life,” the father said, highlighting the political situation and what may come ahead of the Jatiya Sangsad polls.

Meanwhile, Abdullah Al Sohan, founder of an online-based coaching centre, told TBS,  “In this political instability, we have made it convenient for the student, but the convenience is not only for now.”

“Earlier students from other districts had to travel away from home just to prepare for the admission test. It would take a month for them to settle down in a new environment. The transition is not smooth as most of these students either have to live in a hostel or at a relative’s house,” Sohan added.

Preparing online is also very cost-effective as the students do not need to rent a house in a city and the coaching fees typically are set at a significantly lower rate than physical classes.

“The idea of opening up this platform came in January this year when I read a news article that said a father from Bogura sold his cow and some sack of paddy to arrange money for his son to prepare for the admission test staying in a hostel.”

“I know there exists a lot of online-based coaching already but I wanted to be part of helping this cause – ​​removing the inconvenience of coming to Dhaka for an expensive admission preparation,” Sohan added.

“Given the ongoing state conditions and elections are also due – who knows what may come in the near future. So I guess, preparing for admission test in any online-based platform is a good alternative for HSC 2023 intake,” he said

Sohan’s coaching has over 700 videos covering complete preparation for entrance exams in engineering, medical, and various university units.

Initially, live classes were conducted on common Facebook groups, but they have now moved to an interactive mobile app and specialised Facebook groups.

“It’s not limited to just videos; we also conduct MCQ-type quizzes, and students can participate in written mock tests. We also provide one-to-one feedback sessions,” said Sohan explaining online coaching as not only a demand of the time but a worthy alternative.

When will the ‘war’ begin for HSC 2023 intake

The academic calendar for HSC 2023 students remains uncertain due to ongoing challenges exacerbated by the current political instability.

Traditionally, university entrance exams take place within the last quarter of the year following HSC exams in April-May. Classes commence in January-March of the following year after the admission process concludes.

BRAC University Emeritus Professor Manzoor Ahmed highlighted that academia could not recover the pre-existing backlogs due to the Covid-19 pandemic yet, and circumstances have further deteriorated for the country’s higher education because of current political instability.

“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, board exams took place at a delayed schedule in the last two years and so universities have been forced to delay entrance exams. Look, students of the HSC 2023 batch are not yet sure when their public university exams will be; but if you remember in a regular academic year, by the end of November, the admission test season would have come near the end quarter,” he said.

However, as of now, no public university has released any schedule or announcement regarding upcoming public university entrance exams.

Contacted, the University Grants Commission (UGC) said that the decision regarding admission tests will be made by each university considering the time, situation and convenience of all candidates and announced in due course.