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Uncertain situation forces HEC to ask universities to prepare for online education or abandon semester

April 22, 2020

PESHAWAR: The uncertainty about duration of the ongoing lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic has forced the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to ask the universities to start preparing for switching to online education or abandon the current semester.

At school level, a number of private educational institutions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have already started courses in the name of ‘online classes’ despite summer vacations until May 31. This step is seen as an effort to find a justification for collection of fee rather than imparting education to the students.

Some previous directives of the HEC about online classes had drawn serious criticism, mostly from students belonging to the remote areas as they lack connectivity with internet and some don’t have even the facility of electricity in their areas.

The HEC has posted a detailed report on its portal through which a thorough analysis of the situation has been made and necessary guidelines given to the universities. “If lockdown restrictions are lifted by early June, universities can return to business as usual. But if there are further delays, there will be no choice except either to switch to online education or to abandon the semester,” said HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri.

He noted that HEC has adopted a two-pronged policy aimed at supporting the government efforts to halt the spread of the disease and start an effort to minimize academic disruption. “Fortunately, online interaction provides a vehicle for doing so. Accordingly, HEC has asked universities to prepare themselves to transition to online classes and online interaction as quickly as possible,” he added.

The educational institutions would remain closed until May 31 due to the pandemic and lockdown put in place by the government and already declared as “advanced summer” vacations. But it is still unclear whether the universities and other institutions would be reopened after the given date. If the lockdown persists and the educational institutions are not reopened there would be the possibility that the students could lose an academic session. In such a situation, the HEC would need to come up with a concrete decision about online classes or delaying the academic session. The HEC has already directed the universities to get prepared for such a possibility. The HEC chairman argued that though there has been criticism over the decision to shift to online classes, the majority of students and faculty members are eager to make good use of their time, continue with the education, and contribute to the national effort. “They do have concerns, of course, like the others, but their demands are to address the concerns and find feasible and operative solutions. HEC has been working hard to try to find such solutions,” he said. He maintained that HEC was assisting universities in a number of ways, including arranging software and connectivity packages, curating online materials and training programmes, building a data repository, providing guidance on quality enhancement, and setting up and adapting monitoring and evaluation systems.

The HEC has also forwarded guidelines for overcoming the students’ concerns. Proper guidelines pertaining to quality issues, connectivity problems and students’ facilitation services have already been proposed.

At the school level, the Elementary and Secondary Education Department of the province has not been able to take any decision yet. “We have done nothing on our own except just copying a few programmes and links from other provinces and uploading them on the department’s website,” said a senior official of the provincial government. The private schools have, however, introduced online sessions and they been insisting on parents to follow school directives. But it is difficult for parents to force their kids, mostly studying in the junior classes, to take online classes.

“This idea of online classes, especially at school level is meaningless. I don’t want my kid to spend time with computer and mobile phone. In such a situation, they would require strict monitoring to know whether they are taking classes or surfing other sites,” said Abdullah Afridi, a parent.

The private schools have been looking for justification to collect fee for the two months when the schools are off-session and closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “These so-called online classes can provide them a better justification for the fee collection,” said Mohammad Zaid, another parent.

Interestingly, majority of the private schools have not been paying salaries to their teachers and other staff members. A number of teachers have been sacked on different pretexts, but they are determined to collect more and more fee in the name of paying salaries to their staff. The private schools teachers and other employees have been the worst affectees of the ongoing crisis. They can neither apply for the government’s Ehsas programme nor considered deserving to receive donations from the well-off people and charities. Their schools have also stopped paying salaries to them. The government has also turned a blind eye to their miseries.

The government needs to announce a compensation package for these teachers and other staff members and it won’t cost much. According to a senior professor of University of Peshawar Dr Ikhtiar Khan, the private school teachers would remain jobless until June 1. He said these educated people cannot stand in the queue for free rations or get their names registered with charity organisations for receiving food packages. “The government should compensate them through their schools so that they could be supported without harming their self-esteem,” he argued.