Education experts have emphasised the importance of keeping online classes running in order to reduce session congestion in higher education during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For this, students must be provided with free internet facilities plus mobile handsets and laptops, they said, and called for increasing the budget allocation to this sector.
The experts made the demand at a post-budget virtual dialogue on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-21 organised by the Centre on Budget and Policy, a research organisation of the Dhaka University (DU).
Professor Dr Atiur Rahman, former governor of the Bangladesh Bank, presided over the function, and Professor Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman, vice chancellor of the Dhaka University, was the chief guest.
"We have to find out how many students in higher education will need mobile handsets and laptops. If necessary, the budget for education must be increased to keep online classes running," said Dr Atiur.
He added that in this case, if necessary, education loans can be introduced for students. DU and other public universities will have to sign a memorandum of understanding with any bank with the support of the central bank.
He also recommended further expanding banks' corporate social responsibility programmes to help the education sector. Professor Atiur said 10 GB internet data needs to be provided to the students free of cost.
At the same time, he emphasised the importance of expanding allocations to the health sector. He said, "The allocations given to the health sector this time should be monitored to see if they are being spent properly. If there is any irregularity, action has to be taken immediately. There will be a committee and every day it will update what happened, what did not happen and why."
Dr Atiur said the fragility of the health sector has been apparent since the outbreak of Covid-19. Oxygen supply must be increased to save lives. If necessary, the allocation should be doubled.
According to experts, the rate of infections will double in the next two weeks. As a result, in order to increase the testing, if necessary, measures should be taken to bring new machines quickly.
The former governor criticised job cuts and a pay reduction amid the pandemic. He said many banks were saying they would reduce salaries. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has been saying that workers will be laid off. These should be stopped. "If you want to live, you have to live with everyone."
Professor Md Akhtaruzzaman said it is time to introduce online classes. "In any way, we have to engage students with learning programmes and deal with congestion in academic sessions. You have to find out how many students must be provided with mobile handsets and laptops. At the same time, we need to calculate the amount of funding for it."
He said Dhaka University has already taken such an initiative.
"We need to be more innovative to get rid of this transition period of Covid-19. However, our allocation for education research is inadequate. How can rankings be expected without allocation for research. Our research work needs to be connected internationally. There are shortcomings in this regard," he added.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education and former adviser to a caretaker government, said the allocation for the education sector needs to be evaluated so that whether it is being spent transparently can be determined.
She said agricultural research has played a major role in the development of agriculture. There was no allocation for research in the agricultural sector in this year's budget. Although there is an incentive for businesses, it is not available in the agricultural sector.
"Bulk allocations are never used properly. We have to increase surveillance in this regard. Allocations for education, health and economic recovery need to be increased. The health sector needs to be extensively reformed," she added.
Rasheda K Chowdhury said higher education should be encouraged. "There are a lot of students who used to meet their expenses for private tuition before Covid-19. This budget does not reflect the needs of students and working people. It seems that this budget was prepared before the Covid-19 outbreak in the country in March," she continued.
She demanded that the mega projects be slowed, if necessary, to increase allocations for education, health and social security.
Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Dhaka University Dr Sadeka Halim said that although the finance minister spoke about quality education in his budget speech, it was not reflected in this year's budget. "We cannot start online classes because many students do not have money to buy mobile handsets and internet data."
She has demanded the allocation for higher education be increased and that initial incentives be given. "Salaries of the primary school teachers will have to be increased. Already many children are starting to drop out of primary education," she said.
Regarding the health sector, she continued that all development in the health sector is Dhaka-centric so villagers are not getting access to health services. "There is a lack of management and coordination in the budget," she said.
Dr Selim Raihan, DU professor of economics and executive director of the research organisation South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem), said the allocation for the neglected sectors – such as education, health and social security – have not increased in proportion to GDP in the last one-and-a-half to two decades.
He said for the first time in a budget, the health sector is being discussed with importance. However, the allocation is still inadequate compared to the need. Allocations need to be increased. The health sector needs reform. All the irregularities need to be removed.
"The problems we have been facing in the education sector have not been discussed sufficiently in the budget. As a result, even if the finance minister speaks optimistically, we are not reassured," said the economist.
Speaking about the agriculture budget, he said strengthening food security was mentioned. However, the rice price has already been increasing. Prices of other food products are also on the rise. In the future, the rice price may go up further.
"If there are any irregularities in it, it needs to be strictly dealt with. Otherwise, food security can become a big problem," Dr Raihan added.
Dr Taiabur Rahman, professor of development studies at DU, said it could cost around Tk600 crore to arrange online classes for 8.5 lakh students. The government should give this allocation. He demanded a reduction in internet usage charges.
Professor Dr Rumana Huque, of economics, and Professor Dr Kazi Maruful Islam, of development studies, of the university also spoke on the occasion.
Professor Dr M Abu Yusuf, director at the Centre on Budget and Policy, delivered the keynote address at the event.