For those of us Bangladeshis who have lived here in this impoverished land all our lifetimes, it is needless to say that we dwell in a system that is not just terribly flawed but also extremely inept at maintaining and serving the huge populace largely dependent on those policies. We have democratic institutions and governmental policies based on the English judicial system composed during the corrupt colonial era, and our policy-makers are more busy emulating Western policies rather than creating their own. The country largely believes that copying the West and getting rid of our traditional cultural values is the way forward to modernism and urbanization. And a simple but good example to demonstrate this issue is the increasing number of new Dhakaites and the other educated city-dwellers calling their mothers ‘mom’ and ‘ammi’ instead of the traditional Bengali ‘maa’ or ‘ammu’.
However I digress. The hottest news over the past few days on the Bengali news channels and dining tables of Bangladeshi homes with prospective college goers nowadays has been one: the medical admission, another system copied from the Western policies . A few days back the government, namely the Ministry of Health under which the medical colleges are operated, issued a new decree invalidating the use of entrance exams for medical colleges. Earlier until last year, there used to be one entrance exam for medical colleges and it was created by the Ministry of Health and jointly used by the public and private colleges. The higher scorers in the exam used to be taken into the top-notch medical schools of the country and the lower scorers accordingly went into the lesser good ones.
But what really proved problematic in this system is the amount of available seats. Each year the total amount of available seats with both private and public sectors combined is around 5000. But when we are talking about Bangladesh, we are talking about the 7th most populated nation in the world. Not only is this country extremely overpopulated but also terribly bereft of resources and the medical sector is no different. For a total number of 5000 seats the number of students competing this year was supposed to be a staggering total of 75000 young, energetic, over-studied students. And sadly, I was one of them.
So how do you differentiate between all these people and bring out the best from them? Until last year, there was but one method: a rigorous admission exam that tested more of your memory than anything else. And it was not just memory; it was something beyond memory. After all, which memory test questions birth-dates of scientists and the books they published their works in? What sort of exam questions students on the currency of Uganda, or which subject the country’s current premiere Shiekh Hasina studied during her days in Dhaka University?
Trust me, the medical exam is different. You not only have to memorize tonnes and tonnes of zoology, botany, physics and chemistry but at the same time you must be extremely adept at abnormal general issues like currencies of the 193 countries recognized by UN (I memorised the number 193 you see?), which Indian states want independence from the united India, which Bengali writer wrote which book etc etc. The result has been the creation of a class of studious students like me who have gotten rid of their social lives, extra-curricular activities and freedom of choice among the different subjects of studying. Instead we medical prospectives have embraced a life wooed to our tiring books, studying exhaustively anything and everything printed on them only to forget everything the next day, and then to study the same materials over and over again for the next few days. The one hour length entrance exam for which we have but around three months time, is extraordinarily strenuous and that probably is one of the many reasons why doctors inhumanely charge exorbitant fees even from their poverty-stricken patients.
But the jolt came this year when the decision was made to abrogate the exam entirely and take applicants based on their school-leaving examinations. One might say that no school-leaving exam ever tests a student appropriately, but then again, can a one hour length, extremely rigorous and immensely competitive exam aptly test a student’s academic aptitude? And moreover, isn’t this system of exam-taking extremely harmful as it deters many students away from the medical sector, a sector based primarily on the ability to serve the community at large? But then again considering all this, how exactly do you test a student appropriately for the medical exam?
There are really a lot of sides and stances on this issue, and the public debate has been composed of mixed opinions. For one thing, the exam severely fuels the immoral business of the medical admission coaching centres sprawling throughout the major cities. These centres are nothing but money-hungry business companies ill-bent upon making education a business product. The high amount of money they charge from each student is absolutely unjustified. Not only does it put a huge pressure on the students and their parents but also stress the need for consumerism and wealth in the impoverished communities of Bangladesh. I for example, joined the English version batch of Primet Farmgate, and am absolutely dissatisfied with what the instructors do inside the class. The 16000 taka my parents provided for admission has gone to complete wastage as I have been coerced to confront to the fact that there is no difference between attending classes at Primet and simply sleeping on my bed (since what I essentially do in those classes is sleep because most of the instructors are only involved in showing you what to read rather than explain or discuss the questions and topics that actually appear in the exam). Well actually, in the medical examination there’s no point really of attending coaching centres because you can rest assured, unless and until you are on of those uber-geniuses, that on the exam day nothing will go right. The conclusion is: you must read everything for the exam, and probably more than everything if you want to come out well, regardless of what your instructors suggest or do.
But most importantly, all these coaching centres are also allegedly involved in the business of leaking questions through their extensively corrupt networks. Last year for example, there was a smoke in the air that several of them had gotten hold of the papers and were blackmailing the parents and the students to buy the questions from them at exorbitant prices.
Having said all that, there still is a huge group of city-dwellers who think that switching off the exam will actually harm their chances of admission. For one thing, the overpopulation and the academic geniuses of the fish-eating populace really makes the selection process extremely complicated and competitive. It also leaves a lot of room for corruption and nepotism—-issues the international communities champion Bangladesh for—-and hence largely destroys the transparency of the system. These are the reasons for which crowds of students and their guardians are actively participating in protest demonstrations and rallies asking the government to reverse its decision. Of course, most of these protesters have been instigated by the money-hungry coaching centres that are more involved in securing their own financial interests, which easily amount to millions of taka because of the huge amount of money they charge each year, rather than advocating for a feasible solution to the problem. Yet, even among the mob there are some rational sides to consider.
The only way forward that I, as a student, think is sustainable and also easily able to elicit the most brilliant of students is to take IQ exams or assessment tests like the SATs and SAT Subject Tests. Of course, side by side school-leaving examinations, laboratory experiences and interviews should also be taken into account equally in ways such that disadvantaged students do not get left out or discriminated against. A quota system maybe set up to absorb in genius students from the minority tribes and underprivileged communities. But whatever is done, there has to be a viable, feasible way to address both the hurdles of the students and the selection boards of the medical colleges while leaving room for accountability and transparency.
It is important to realize for the government that the time is crucial. Not only is the next year the election year, but also that today’s policies will dictate what tomorrow has in store for us. They will be the ones determining whether the country will have good and able doctors and medical representatives in the near future from a generation of talented thinkers and diligent students. If the government suffers from indecision and mercurial stances, the dream of Bangladesh as a sovereign, united nation that is subservient and productive at the same time will not come true.