Let's not pretend otherwise. The bare-faced, no-holds-barred truth is that education in Bangladesh is in free fall, if not in terminal decline. And we are not here speaking of our failure to make it to a respectable spot in global university rankings. The problem goes much deeper.
Close to a fortnight ago, we were informed of the poor performance of students seeking admission to Dhaka University following this year's results at the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations. If we must recall, a whopping 95.26 per cent of students qualified at this year's HSC and equivalent examinations, conveying the impression that the national education curve is on an endless upward trajectory.
After all, when such a huge percentage of the young emerge from colleges with such admirable performance, it is only to be expected that most if not all of them will cheerfully make their way to classrooms in the university.
But that has not happened, indeed has not been happening in the past many years. And that despite the celebrations associated with the young, at both school and college levels, achieving GPA-5s and even golden GPA-5s. Every annual announcement of SSC and HSC examination results is cause not just for students but also teachers and parents to lose themselves in gala celebrations all over the country.
One would think that the old adage of the sky being the limit has been reached, indeed broken through. The illusion of achievement takes hold of millions of us. We pat ourselves on the back over the success of our children and grandchildren at these examinations.
The reality, however, is a rude shock. When a few years ago only a couple of students qualified for admission in the English department of Dhaka University, much ire was aroused at what was perceived to be the department's strict intake process. Deliberately ignored, at both the political and administrative levels, was the truth that all those GPAs had not proved good enough to allow the department or by extension the university to take in a number of students we could be comfortable with.
Which takes us back to our worry, of education being in decline. Observe the facts, incontrovertible and therefore a grave worry for many. As many as 1.89 lakh students obtained GPA-5 at this year's HSC and equivalent examinations. In simple translation, each of these students came by 80 per cent marks in all the subjects they appeared for, on average. Of these students, 2,70,000 sat the admission tests for five units at Dhaka University. The sad outcome?
Only 27,488, or 10.23 per cent, were successful in their efforts to qualify for admission at DU, which however has 6,035 seats on offer. Obviously, not all of those who have emerged clear of the admission tests will find seats at DU, which raises the question, as it always does, of where they will go. Of bigger worry is the fate of those who, having left college with such outstanding HSC scores, have not seen that success translated into admission at DU.
Of course, with so many public universities as also private universities operating in the country, there will be space to accommodate many who have not qualified for Dhaka University. But our worry is the old one: Why is the education system failing our students? That makes us take a trip to classrooms in schools and colleges, to delve into the causes behind the ignorance which annually manifests itself at the university admissions process.
Teaching methods, indeed the teaching system, is at fault. Most of these students seeking places at DU have demonstrated an extremely poor level of performance in English and general knowledge.
Circumstances were not this way back in the days before the GPA system was inflicted on the education system. All subjects, including English, were taught in the classroom along conventional methods, with the result that students achieved a good or a fairly good degree of proficiency in them. Which begs the question: Do we not teach the young proper grammar in the classroom?
That there are essays to be written, sentences to be framed, idioms to be mastered and spellings to be learned are integral components in the teaching and learning of any language. Or has the GPA system meant a dumbing down of the learning process? The answer to that last question is a loud Yes.
Questions have also been raised, and quite properly too, about the quality of teachers and the recruitment of teachers. Nothing can be more debilitating for students to be taught by teachers who either lack the skills to train the young in the subjects before them or are too unqualified for or indifferent to the tasks they have in hand.
It is not enough to pin the blame on just students for the unedifying performance they put up at the university admissions level. One is concerned too about the intellectual and professional competence of a large section of teachers in the country.
A student's goal, once he or she has crossed the HSC bar, is certainly to go for higher education at the university. The preparations for university education naturally should be all-encompassing for this student; and part of these preparations should be a clear understanding of the world, of knowledge in its various forms, on the part of the student looking forward to a place at the university.
Our sadness stems from the thought that a major cause behind the failure of the young to make it to the list of successful applicants for admission at DU has been their poor hold on general knowledge.
And so we have a question again: Are the young in school and college not encouraged by their teachers to seek knowledge of the world, to observe contemporary events as they shape up every day? Knowledge is fundamentally a matter of what is taught within the classroom and without. In the old days, many of us took part in quiz competitions organized by the administrators of the schools and colleges we studied in.
Annual debate competitions complemented the knowledge acquired in the classroom. Teachers regularly instructed their pupils to read newspapers and journals, the moral being that the young owed it to themselves to come level with the rest of the world. Time was set aside for students to read in their school libraries, to borrow books from there.
It is these factors --- a focus on language and knowledge --- that should be incorporated in the education system in schools and colleges. In this day and age, it is inappropriate to have a vast army of the young aspiring to higher education not properly versed in politics, global affairs, science and the consequences of climate change.
Students should be educated, through classroom lectures by teachers, on the men and women whose contributions to history have made the world what it is today. A student preparing for university ought to be an embodiment of substantive ideas, imbued with dreams of taking his country to the heights.
How many of our young know of the number of rivers coursing through the length and breadth of Bangladesh, of the number of districts, upazilas and villages in the country? To what degree have we educated them on a comprehensive history of the country, education which has them take pride in their heritage?