Bangladesh universities were recovering from years of gap. Then came COVID-19

The public universities in Bangladesh had been conducting their academic activities without hindrances thanks to the absence of significant political disturbances. Still, the coronavirus crisis has reversed their hard-fought gains.

After the 66-day lockdown designed to stem the spread of the disease, offices, courts, factories, malls, shops and public transport reopened gradually. Educational institutions have remained closed, with no specific details on when the face-to-face classes and exams will resume.

The public universities began holding online classes a month after the shutdown, but they are yet to decide on exams.

Uncertainty weighed on the students, some of whom were about to finish their study when the shutdown began.

As the academies still await a decision about reopening, the pupils stare at a six-month to one-year delay to their plans to end higher studies, thus the beginning of their career.

The universities are working on cutting the gap, but many of the teachers see no way to regain the lost months.

The 1980s and 90s witnessed some of the worst politically unstable and violent times on the campus that shut universities time and time again, leaving students floundering amidst the gap which they call session jams.

The last time the universities remained closed for a long time – three months – due to political instability was during the 2013-14 elections.

Now the session jam menace looms over the universities once again as the extensive pandemic-induced closure of the academies is brutally nullifying five years of efforts to fill the gap.


Although most public universities of the country, including the four autonomous ones, are running online classes, the student attendance is thin. Exams are a hassle, but the evaluation is far more complicated.

The students living in remote areas suffered from slow internet, while some do not have suitable devices for remote learning.

Additionally, with the campuses shut for a long time, uncertainty and frustration cloud the minds of those who had exams coming up or were in the middle of exams during the lockdown.

Saziduzzaman is an undergrad student at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies in Jahangirnagar University. Right before the government announced the shutdown, he sat for his annual exams and was able to take just one exam of his nine courses.

He has no idea when he will be able to take the remaining tests.

"The session begins in January and ends in December in other universities. But as ours begin in March, there is always this invisible session jam of three months. We can't tell how long it will take because of the coronavirus. We've lost a year," he said.

The place next to the Arts Building of Dhaka University is empty amid the coronavirus shutdown. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Muhseen Ahmed, a postgraduate student of international relations at the University of Dhaka, was supposed to sit for the second-semester exams by this year to wrap up his university studies. But the pandemic shattered his hopes of taking the exams.

"Even if a semester is completed in four months, it will take at least eight months to complete [the rest of his study]. If the varsity does not come up with an alternative plan to hold the exams, we can't avoid a session jam. And in that case we will fall behind by a year," he said.

Tasnuba Tahsin, a fourth-year undergraduate student of Chattogram University's communication and journalism department, is happy with the pace of progress in online classes, but says they still do not favour taking the exams immediately after the reopening.

"It will put us in a session jam. Overall, we are passing the days in uncertainty," she said.

Farzana Munni, a third-year undergrad of Jagannath University's accounting and information systems department, said the institution was holding online classes in a way that it would have exams for two semesters at a time after the situation normalises.

"But simply holding semester finals won't be enough. Completing the midterms or assignments will take time," she said, explaining why they fear a session jam is inevitable. 


Many officials also believe that a session jam is unavoidable, but covering the loss is also possible in some unorthodox methods, such as reducing a semester or annual curriculum, cutting holidays and holding extra classes.

Prof ASM Maksud Kamal, pro-vice chancellor of Dhaka University, hopes the students will not fall into a serious session jam problem.

"Those who were about to acquire their Honours or Master's degrees may face a delay for some time, but the first and second-year students don't need to fret over a session jam," he said.

He said the university might complete the annual curriculum in eight to nine months to ensure the students do not fall into a gap. Those in their final semesters may still suffer in this method, he observed.

“But we do have different ideas about how to resolve their session jam,” Prof Kamal said.

He also described the steps taken by the university to ensure that all students can attend online classes.

"We're also thinking about alternative ways of evaluating the students in case the pandemic prolongs. But before that, we need to ensure their participation online by facilitating it," he said.

Prof Farzana Islam, the vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, said they were thinking about cutting lengthy and weekly holidays to make up for the time lost to the session jam.

"Those who only have viva and report submission left for the completion of the study will be able to take viva and submit the reports online. We've also decided to hold the viva for MPhil, PhD and Master's online," she said.

The university has also formed a committee to assess whether it is possible to hold online exams regularly.

Prof SM Monirul Hasan, the acting registrar of the Chattogram University, said, "When things return to normal, we will go for crash courses to clear session jam. But if the break lingers on for another six months, that would be a real cause for concern."

"It's difficult to comment on the matter as a lot depends on for how many days things stay this way. Once this crisis is over, we need to sit down and try to figure out how much damage has been done and decide on the best way to offset it," Jagannath University Registrar Md Ohiduzzaman said.


Only once did the education centres at all levels stay shut for a similarly lengthy time -- during the Liberation War of 1971 -- when all academies were shut for nine straight months. Naturally, the present crisis reminded some elderly academicians of the days of the war.

"Although the schools and colleges resorted to auto-promotion at that time, the same was not possible for the universities. The results of the exams which took place before and after Mar 25, 1971 were scrapped and new exams were held in 1972,” said Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury, an educator, writer, essayist and political-cultural activist who turned 84 in June.

“The students also held movements for auto-promotion in the preliminary exams. But that did not happen and the exams were held.”

On the looming session jam issue, Prof Choudhury said, "I think this year has to be dropped. I don't see any other way. We have to come to terms with that.

"It's not like only we have suffered. This pandemic is causing suffering to the whole world. It is not possible to overcome such a devastating disaster without losses. We have to think that this time is lost to us."

"Many have said that if the lessons are completed online, then exams could be taken in a short time once things return to normal. But online lessons are not being effective.

"The participation of all students cannot be ensured. There are many limitations. Organising an exam now will create discrimination," he said.

A professor emeritus of the University of Dhaka, Prof Choudhury said, "Let the online lessons continue as much as possible, but evaluating through this would not be right. We can do two things. One is, we have to think that this period of time is lost to us.

"And the other is, we need to look at how the other countries are dealing with this. How they are recovering, and through that knowledge, we have to overcome our limitations to conduct the educational activities.

Another senior academician and writer, Syed Manzoorul Islam, sees the situations of 1971 and the current one in different lights.

"The losses in 1971 were induced by war. We saw more session jams during the regime of Ershad. Now we get distraught quite easily, and we forget that once we had to go through session jams for two to three years on the bounce," he said.

"I think we can have a situation to reopen the universities by October. The online classes are held regularly, and their syllabuses are almost complete. Now only the exams remain. It can be resolved if we give the exams immediately after the varsity reopens maintaining the [health] directives and physical distancing measures."

"Students whose syllabuses will remain incomplete, we could give classes only for them to quickly go through the syllabus. If the universities reopen by Oct 10, it would be better to hold exams by Nov 15."

Prof Manzoorul Islam said, "The damage we suffered is not worth a year, rather around six months. For that a semester has been lost. If a semester is completed within four months, it is possible to finish three semesters in a year."

Prof AK Azad Chowdhury, former VC of the Dhaka University, recommended the proper utilisation of modern technology as a way to recover.

"There are ways to overcome this problem. The private universities of our country are doing all their academic works online. Public university students have limitations, it's true. But their number is not too high. The government or universities can facilitate these students in coming online. They can also hold exams online," he said.