Indecisive Authorities and Mass Panic: A Look at Admission Season 2020

E D U C A T I O N – B A N G L A D E S H

Miftahul Zannat

While both students and parents across Bangladesh rejoiced at the news of the HSC exam cancellations, the cancellation also heralded in the aftermath with it. Now that all the students preparing for HSC exams would be passed automatically, how universities would determine their eligibility is a question that remains to be answered with sufficient clarity.

On Tuesday, Dhaka University announced that the university would be opting for divisional admission tests this year due to the pandemic. Though DU announced that the decision was made to make the tests accessible and available to everyone amid the ongoing pandemic, they have yet to announce how they are going to ensure hygiene concerns. It should be mentioned that they refrained from mentioning anything about Covid-19 protocols. 

Universities across the country had varying ways of conducting the admission tests before the pandemic. Universities in Bangladesh are divided mainly into two categories—those which take uniform admission tests and those which do not. According to The Daily Star, only 7 out of the 39 public universities in Bangladesh held a uniform admission test till last year. It was announced last year that the public universities of Bangladesh would be taking one uniform admission test to reduce the hassle many students across the country face to keep track of how each university conducts its exams along with concerns regarding expense and transportation. When that did not work out, they proposed a cluster system where similar universities would be preparing a uniform admission test for their cluster. 

Though, several universities namely—Dhaka University, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Rajshahi University, Jahangirnagar University, and Chittagong University—expressed their concerns regarding the new cluster system the University Grants Commission proposed. So, till last year, public universities such as Dhaka University, BUET or Dhaka Medical College, each held separate admission tests. As did all the private universities of the country. However, the agricultural universities of the country held a uniform admission test. 

Before the pandemic, then, students had to keep an eye on the news and websites regarding the publication of the university circulars they would be applying for, to know how each university would conduct their admission test. As private universities across the country are more expensive, most students tend to opt for the public ones.

However, this year due to the pandemic, those methods may require minor, and in some cases, major modifications. At the cancellation of the HSC examinations, many students wondered how or if admission tests were a possibility, considering the situation of the country. 

In a meeting held on 18 October between the Bangladesh Bishwabidyalaya Parishad and the Vice-Chancellors of several universities, it was decided that admission tests would take place. But, the exact methods of taking them are still uncertain and undecided, and as of yet, none of the universities except DU and medical universities have clarified whether they will be taking an online test or an on-site one.  The rest of the universities still appear to be mulling over what to do.

As to when the examinations are taking place, most universities barring the medical ones have still to fix a concrete date. However, it is obvious from the cancellation of the HSC exams that these tests cannot be conducted until HSC results reach students. Moreover, universities also need to give students ample time to prepare for the tests. 

As a result of these uncertainties, students are thrown into a choppy sea of uncertainty they cannot seem to get out of. For one, there is the stress of constantly having to check the newspapers and the news for updates. Not only that, the fact that the question paper patterns may change also serve as a major source of worry for many applicants. It is evident, then, that applicants across the country are having too much weight put on their shoulder, added to the toll that the pandemic has already taken on their mental health. 


When asked about the toll this uncertainty is taking on the mental wellbeing of students, Eyamim Sultana, an applicant of BUET, told us, “It is obvious that our mental health is taking a toll because of this. Because we still don’t know when our exams are going to be held or how they are going to be held. On top of that, the news media publishes different news every hour.”

A Closer Look at the Admission Tests and Question Paper Patterns

The DU admission test, till last year, consisted of a 200 mark examination which allocated 75 marks to MCQ (multiple-choice) questions and 45 marks to an essay question with the remainder of the 80 marks awarded depending on applicants’ SSC and HSC grades. This year, however, they decided to halve the marks of the test to 100 with 30 marks being dedicated to MCQs and 50 marks to essay type questions. The rest of the marks (20) would be awarded based on applicants’ SSC and HSC grades. This change signals a huge shift because now only 20% of the previous 40% would be awarded based on SSC and HSC results. This has given rise to a new concern as to how the question paper patterns changing will determine the university’s evaluation on who gets to be eligible. 

Addressing this issue, Nishat Subah, a student preparing to apply for Dhaka University told us, “As our pace of study may not have been the usual this year, these marks may have been reduced to assess the students better considering the current situation.” 

Mehjabeen Rahman, also an applicant for DU, agreed,

“I think it’s for the better. Previously SSC and HSC results impacted a major portion of the number. But since our HSC exam didn’t really happen, it’d be illogical for the score to impact the results. If you see the marks distribution, you’ll see that they are emphasising on the written part which is great. So I don’t think it’s for the worse.”

And while that may be true, it also raises concern, such as whether or not students who have been unable to complete the entirety of their HSC syllabus would be able to cope with the material that would be taught to them once they start University classes. And, while Dhaka University has mentioned how they are planning to conduct the tests, they are still to answer when exactly these exams are going to be held. Their answer on Tuesday was vague in that they only informed that it would be held sometime after the HSC results have been published.

In this regard, however, Medical Universities have been significantly clearer. On Saturday, Medical universities across the country announced that they would also be conducting on-site admission tests with no change in the actual admission test itself and the test dates are set to be announced sometime in the next few weeks. 

The medical admission test comprises a 300-mark exam with 100 marks allocated for MCQs, 30 for Biology, 25 for Chemistry, 20 for Physics, 15 for English, six for History and Culture of Bangladesh, and four for International affairs. The rest of the marks are awarded based on the SSC and HSC results of the applicants with 75 marks for SSC results and 125 for HSC results. This year, however, the health ministry is still undecided on whether or not they will be taking applicants’ SSC and HSC grades into consideration. 

Though DU and the medical universities have already announced how they are going to conduct their admission tests, other public and private universities across the country remain silent at the time of writing this article. The pandemic also serves as an obstacle to the implementation of last year’s proposal to introduce a cluster system.

Now, faced with these new difficulties arising due to the pandemic, public Engineering universities such as BUET, RUET, and CUET—some of the most prestigious engineering universities in the country—are still to announce how they will be conducting their admissions tests. Previously, BUET took a 600 mark test with 200 marks for Mathematics, 200 for Physics, and 200 for Chemistry with very strict criteria set for applicants’ HSC and SSC results. However, they have still to announce anything regarding the admission test this year. This has yet again led to uncertainty among students with many not being able to prepare sufficiently because they have no idea how to proceed. 

Private Universities in the country, such as North South University, Brac University, and ULAB, to name a few—each previously held separate admission tests to assess students’ along with their HSC and SSC grades, but they have also been silent regarding the admission process this year. 


HSC and SSC test results

The HSC and SSC scores played a pivotal role in determining eligibility in the past, and so the cancellation of the exams this year has students wondering whether it would be fair if HSC grades are based on SSC, class test, and JSC ones. The issue with this approach was that HSC and SSC syllabi are hugely different from each other. The content in HSC is significantly more and it is also more complex. As such, basing HSC grades on SSC and JSC grades may not be representative of students’ efforts or ability. 

Eyamim Sultana, an applicant for Engineering universities, said, “We must look at both sides of the coin. On one hand, considering the current situation with the pandemic, evaluating us on our HSC and JSC results was the best route forward. Especially, considering safety concerns. On the other hand, though, many students whose grades weren’t good in SSC and JSC exams, and were taking preparation to do better in the HSC exam, will now be getting bad grades without being assessed based on their hard work.”

Furthermore, this year, the automatic passing of all 13.6 lakh HSC candidates will result in a spike in competition. Every year about 13 to 14 lac students sit for their HSC exams. Last year, 73.93% of them passed while 26.07% failed. That means out of the 13,36,629 examinees in 2019, about 3.5 lakh students failed.

As a result of auto-promotion this year, all those who would have failed are going to pass and apply in universities across the country with the same number of seats available as before. This would undoubtedly result in not only fiercer competition, but also difficulty in maintaining safety protocols.

Sumain Aahir, an applicant for DU, said, “What we study in 11th and 12th class are far more different than what we studied earlier. So to base this on school results (JSC and SSC), may not seem fair; but again, circumstances. Also, class assessments are not truly fair. Our batch has had a lot of hurdles. To sum up, I would say nothing is fair. Not a single thing about this year is fair.”

It is certain that while many students may have come to accept the situation they have found themselves in, they will still not be completely at peace until they are provided with better information.


Admission Season: A picture

Every year, admission season brings upon a drastic change in the cities where the universities are located. In Dhaka, for example, every year during admission season, the hotels fill up with potential students and parents who have come from the other seven divisions of the country. The day of the tests sees the entire city coming to a standstill, as traffic jams congest streets all over the city. Parents and students swarm the examination centre, with the area around the universities vibrating with anxious energy of both students and their parents.

So, while it is understandable why DU and medical universities chose to conduct on-site examinations, it is undeniable that it will come with its fair share of troubles. For one, there may not be enough space to maintain proper physical distancing. The WHO recommends a distance of 1 metre be maintained between individuals at all times and the convening of swarms of people around the country would not be able to ensure that.

Though protocols inside the examination centres may be somewhat maintained, thousands of parents swarming the streets outside would be a cause of concern for many involved. And, that means that the sheer number of students who would unquestionably all be appearing for the admission tests this time could each act as a potential carrier of the virus, both into and out of the exam sites. A continuation of this across all divisions could be enough to potentially trigger a wave of Covid-19.

While DU has still to announce how safety protocols would be upheld, the health ministry announced on Saturday that they have the proper tools to ensure safety protocols will be maintained.

Regarding this, the Former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Professor Md Nazrul Islam, told The Business Standard that the medical admission test must be held even if the coronavirus situation intensifies.

He told them, “The newly admitted students are expected to take care of Covid-19 patients as part of their study. If they are afraid of being infected, how will they become doctors? So, it will not be wise to enrol the new students without any admission test, for making them future doctors.”

He refrained from mentioning what would happen if many of those future doctors died due to contracting the virus from the examination venue.

“I disagree with what he’s said here,” a doctor and frontline worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us when asked about the Vice-Chancellor’s comment, “Any medical student, unless and until he or she is a third or fourth-year-student, is not expected to take care of any patients. And, they are not allowed to take care of a patient suffering from a contagious disease even in the fourth year. So, it is absurd to say that as soon as a student is enrolled, they are going to take care of a Covid-19 patient. Only highly trained people are allowed to treat people suffering from the virus.”

They also gave us further insight into why what the former VC said does not make any sense, “Though, all students sitting for the admission give an implied consent that they are going to treat any patient who seeks treatment from them, that technically does not have any connection to the admission test itself. The admission test only serves as a gauge to determine which students are more eligible to study Medicine. But, the actual process takes years.”

“It takes two to three years of grooming time. You get into the system, you become used to the surroundings, the environs. All of these shapes you into a doctor. When you enter, you’ve just enrolled. It is only when you get out that you’re thinking like a doctor and five years of rigorous training is essential for that. You can’t throw students into the boiling water just because they’re first-year students. Safety of all of our students should be of the utmost regard, no matter what.”


But then, online tests also come bearing their difficulties as those would require all the students to have strong internet connectivity, high-definition webcams, and microphones. Not everyone may be able to acquire the necessary funds needed. And, even then, strong internet connectivity is not always guaranteed and mobile data is quite expensive. There is also the issue of cheating to consider. Many students may find out ways to cheat despite being monitored. Faced with these dilemmas, perhaps, DU and the medical universities chose to opt for on-site examinations while the rest are taking time to weigh the pros and cons of each.


So, what could be the solution?

Proper and thorough information may serve as an incredibly helpful one for now. It would be significantly easier on students if the education ministry could step in and assuage many of the concerns discussed above or even provide students with an approximate date for the tests. 

And, though, it is true that universities of the country act independently and are overseen mainly by the University Grants Commission, the new normal we have found ourselves in requires firmer direction and assurance than before. Even if it is undeniable that the Education Ministry is rightly and understandably very busy handling education across the country from primary to higher secondary levels, it would ease the worry of hundreds of thousands if they could step in and clarify in a time where students are already undergoing a barrage of confusion and uncertainty regarding their future education and careers.


The writer, a curly bigfoot, is a part of TDA Editorial Team.


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