Session jams in public universities used to be commonplace because of political unrest, although academic activities have smoothed out over the past decade. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, threatens to unravel all the gains
Raofa Haque was supposed to finish her university in four years – three for bachelor's degree and another one for master's, but it actually took seven long years.
A student of Public Administration at the University of Dhaka, Raofa attended the university from 1984 to 1991.
The session jam at that time was dubbed "Ershad vacation" – a name deriving from the student movements and political unrest linked to the military rule of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
Almost three decades later, Raofa's daughter Nadia Mehjabeen Oyshi has faced a somewhat similar situation, as far as session jams are concerned.
A student of the Department of Statistics at the same university, Oyshi has already suffered months-long loss, which one could call a corona-vacation, as the government announced it as a general holiday.
Dr Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, started his undergraduate degree at the same university in 1992, a year after Raofa Haque's jam infested sessions ended.
As The Business Standard inquired how the university managed to overcome the session jam, Tanzimuddin Khan said the university granted more freedom to the departments at the time, which they used to hold examinations in time.
"We sat for tests on public holidays, even on Shab-e-Barat," said Professor Khan.
The relative political stability also helped a lot, he added. Eventually, session jams withered away.
The early 2000s' batch of Dhaka University also suffered a two-year session jam because of student movements.
Overall, session jam in public universities had been commonplace because of political unrest, although academic activities have smoothed out in the past decade.
This time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, even private universities could not escape the menace of session jams.
Return of session jam
From March 17 this year, educational institutions across the country have been shut down to minimise the spread of Covid-19.
As the situation was not improving, universities resorted to online classes to resume academic activities.
Public universities began taking online classes from July 1. Although the first semester finals were supposed to be held by June, they are still not in sight.
Asked how Dhaka university is planning to make up for the lost months, Professor Tanzimuddin Khan said, "As online classes have begun, if we take classes six days a week instead of five, and reduce semester duration to four months, the loss can be covered quickly."
But that depends on taking online assessments for the current semester without any more delay.
The University authority is not thinking about taking assessments at the moment.
Students have been discussing alternative measures that are conducive to avoiding session jam.
Anika Mahjabin, a master's student at the Department of Political Science, said, "We want online classes to continue for the next two semesters without exams. When situation improves, the exams can take place altogether."
Of course, the university authority has not planned anything like this, Dr Khan informed. "It is understandable that students do not want to be stuck in session jams because it might affect their career. But as a public university, we have to ensure everyone's participation in the class. In the online system, it has not yet been possible," he said in response to this proposition.
Private universities are doing better
Private universities, on the other hand, were eager to avoid session jam from the very beginning.
In April, some universities started assigning grades to students without taking examinations.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) on April 6 asked private universities to stop doing that without holding semester finals, as well as to halt enrolling new students without admission tests.
But a TBS report titled "Certificates, without any exams!" revealed that some universities asked their teachers to prepare the result sheets without taking final examinations, in clear defiance of the UGC instruction.
One of these universities issued a rejoinder saying the university paused both grade finalisation – which it was doing in a "fair way" – and admissions, when the UGC asked universities to halt all grading, online exams and admissions.
Private universities requested UGC to temporarily revoke its directive.
On May 7, University Grant Commission (UGC) issued a 14-point directive allowing private universities to hold online assessments in order to complete running semesters, with some conditions.
They did not take long to shift to online classes. North South University (NSU) started taking online classes by the end of March.
By June, most private universities with a three-semester system completed their first semester.
The first semester finals at NSU took place in June.
"Well, that semester was supposed to end by April, so there is this tiny lag that we are trying to cover," said Haniyum Maria Khan, a lecturer at the Department of Environmental Science and Management at NSU.
"We are trying to cover it in this semester and the next. This semester will end in October instead of September. And next one will be done by the end of January, so we are on track again. The usual vacation at the year-end will not be there this year," Haniyum added.
The university assessed its students through online assignments and oral tests as per UGC directives. Laboratory work will be done once the situation become normal.
City University, however, completed the first semester before the declaration of pandemic-induced holidays, as it started the semester in December 2019.
The second semester was supposed to begin by the second week of April, which was delayed by only three weeks as the university awaited UGC's permission.
The university is on track for timely completion of the second semester.
"The mid-term has already been held, and we are making up for the two or three weeks that we lost. Instead of five-weeks of classes after mid, there will be four," said Shovan Deb, a lecturer of EEE at City University.
Participation by 60 percent students is being achieved, and the absentees are reliant on recorded lectures, Shovan added.
Desperate measures marked the difference
On one hand, the desperation of private universities to ensure that their students' academic life is not affected by the pandemic helped avoid session jam to a large extent.
The public universities, on the other hand, had to slow down because their students come from a wider socio-economic background.
The UGC conducted a survey on public universities and found that 13 percent of students do not have smartphones.
But even for those who have suitable devices, costly data and poor internet connection in rural areas have been a big problem.
Another survey by the Chattogram University of Engineering and Technology (CUET) has revealed that 40 percent of their students cannot afford to buy enough mobile data for online classes.
As a consequence, students of public universities are likely to get entangled in a lengthy session jam.
Some are in favour of carrying on full academic activities including exams, arguing that students keep missing classes all the time even during a normal situation.
"But we have full seating arrangement for all our students in the physical classrooms, and we are capable of providing equal opportunity to every student in a normal situation, which is not the case when it comes to online classes" said Dr Tanzimuddin Khan in counter argument.
"We cannot just leave behind those who do not have equal access to online classes," concluded Professor Khan.