For urban middle-class students of the University of Dhaka, the pandemic-induced closure has largely been an extended vacation. It was completely different for residential students. Many of them faced great financial trouble at the beginning of the pandemic. At that point in time, many departments used the student welfare funds to help the students in dire need. However, that was a temporary fix.
Frustration among those students continued to grow with time. It has been eleven months since the closure of universities and the residential students are unable to return to Dhaka and continue their tuitions and jobs. These are vital sources of income not only for themselves but also for their families in many cases. Students in general, however, are facing an extended session jam---one that is likely to adversely affect their prospective careers. Unsurprisingly, the students are desperate for academic activities to resume. The protests last week bear witness to their desperation.
Taking this situation into consideration, the Dhaka University authority was also gearing up for reopening halls from March 13 and completing the honours final and master's exams. However, following the Education Minister Dipu Moni's announcement that no exam can be taken before inoculating residential students, teachers and officials of the universities, the DU authority has decided to reopen halls from May 17 next.
The decision taken by the government to vaccinate students is indeed a welcome one. If it can be implemented properly, the risk factor for the university students will decrease substantially. However, the delay in reopening universities is protracting suffering of the students looking to support their families. Hence, steps should have been taken much earlier to prepare the halls for reopening.
In this context, it is important to analyse why the halls cannot be reopened. The reason is simple: it is not possible to maintain social distancing protocols in the residential halls of the universities of our country including Dhaka University. There are currently 20 student dormitories under the country's premier university. But this is not enough as students of the first year reside in "Gono rooms". "Gono rooms" are rooms or dormitories where students reside on the floors with minimal or no distancing among one another. According to a report from Prothom Alo, currently, around 3,000 students reside in 128 "gono rooms" of various halls. The unhygienic living facility is the prime reason why students wanted closure of the university when the pandemic first broke out.
Eleven months have gone by and there have been no tangible steps to restructure the living facility of the residential students so that social distancing protocols can be maintained. Even if there was no pandemic, it is a matter of great regret that a concept such as "gono rooms" still exists in our university and there has not been any long-term plan to increase the number of seats and the quality of residence for students. The latest budget of Dhaka University for the year 2020-21 did not arrange any special allocation for providing laptops, smart phones and internet packages so that the needy students could attend online classes. The budget did not allocate any funding for restructuring the residential facilities even after the pandemic gave the authorities a huge wake-up call. It has been business as usual.
The University of Dhaka is celebrating its centenary this year. It is hosting seminars and has various plans to commemorate this grand occasion. However, if the students of the university do not even have the basic facilities, all this celebration loses much of its shine.
Tanjim-Ul-Islam is an Outreach Team Member at the Financial Express and a fourth-year student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.