A high semester drop rate among students, coupled with dwindling enrollment amid the Covid-19 pandemic, has increased financial pressure on private universities in Chattogram.
Despite offering various facilities – including lucrative waivers on semester fees – they have seen the semester drop rate rise several times during the Covid-19 crisis compared to normal times, according to university sources.
Meanwhile, the academic lives of students who are dropping their semesters for financial reasons are being disrupted, impacting students' social as well as psychological wellbeing.
Mohammad Ashraful Islam (not real name) is an accounting officer at a garment factory in the Chattogram Export Processing Zone.
The first two of his three sons study at two private universities in the port city – one in engineering and the other in business administration. Ashraful has spent about Tk32,000 per month on semester fees for the two boys.
Due to the financial crisis induced by the novel coronavirus pandemic, Ashraful Islam applied to his two son's universities for their semester drop. Even though he was able to reduce his expenses with that move, the education of his two children has been delayed by seven months.
Ashraful Islam told The Business Standard (TBS), "As a father, it was depressing for me to stop my children's education. But there was no other way."
Like the two sons of Ashraful Islam, many students studying at private universities in Chattogram have seen their academic lives come to a standstill due to semester drops.
Nahar Jarin (not real name), a student of a private university in the port city, said, "My father is a retired government employee. He has already borrowed Tk8 lakh to bear the family's expenses amid the novel coronavirus crisis."
"My father used to pay my university semester fees. But in this situation, the university did not allow me to attend classes as I was unable to pay the fees for the last two semesters. Eventually, I was forced to drop the semester," he added.
About 50,000 students study at nine private universities in Chattogram. Most of them are from middle-class families.
Many students arrange for their semesters on their own, as tutors, while others work part-time.
However, because of the novel coronavirus, many have not been able to earn anything in the last few months. As a result, they have had no choice but to drop the semester.
Increased semester drop rate
During the pandemic, private universities in Chattogram are holding classes and administering exams online. However, many students have dropped their semesters for financial reasons.
University officials have said the number of applications for dropping a semester has risen alarmingly due to the virus.
The average number of semester drops per semester at private universities of Chattogram is usually around 30, but the total number of semester drops has exceeded 3,000 in the last two semesters, they added.
According to information from the admissions office of International Islamic University Chittagong, 5% of the students of the university dropped their last semester.
A senior official of a leading private university in Chattogram, wishing not to be named, told The Business Standard that 50 students from different departments dropped out in the last two semesters. Because of this, the university has suffered financially.
He, however, said that students are being given various facilities so that they do not decide to drop the semester.
Mohiuddin Jewel, a senior officer in the public relations and communications department at Chittagong Independent University (CIU), said a financial aid cell headed by the university's vice-chancellor has been formed to help students continue their studies amid the novel coronavirus crisis.
"Even though students are applying for semester drops, we are providing them with various incentives to make sure that their education is not interrupted. Nonetheless, the number of new students being admitted now is lower than in normal times," he added.
In order to reduce semester drops, the universities have: waived tuition fees, waived late payment fees, extended the time for paying semester fees, and made arrangements for fees to be paid in installments. Not only this, the universities are also giving 50-80% waivers for meritorious and poor students.
In Chattogram, all private universities – except Premier University, International Islamic University Chittagong (IIUC) and BGC Trust University – conduct three semesters a year.
The pandemic has not only led to an increase in semester drops but also impacted new student enrollment.
According to sources, student enrollment in the last two semesters – which fell during the pandemic – was the lowest.
"In the pre-pandemic period, 2,500 new students enrolled in Southern University each semester but only 250 students were admitted to the university in the last two semesters," said Saidul Munna, public relations officer at the university.
He told TBS that student enrollment has dropped at an alarming rate.
The situation is similar for other universities.
Among the private universities in Chattogram, the International Islamic University, Chittagong admits the highest number of students. About 12,000 students study at the university.
Due to the novel coronavirus, the university has extended the admission deadline three times. However, there was not much response.
Dr Murtaza Ahmed, head of the Admission Affairs Division of the University, told TBS that 1,200 students were admitted to the university in the semester that started just prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 but the number dropped to 400 in the last semester that began amid the pandemic.
He, however, expressed his hope that student enrollment will increase after the HSC examination. He also claimed that among all private universities in the country the IIUC gave the highest waiver to students during the novel coronavirus situation.
Akhtaruzzaman Kaiser, registrar of BGC Trust University, said the same.
When asked, he said, "We admit students in two semesters a year. During the pandemic, the student enrollment rate has dropped by 50%, while 600 students were admitted in the previous semester."
Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury, eminent academic and former vice chancellor of Chittagong University, said most of the students of the private universities in Chattogram come from lower and middle-class families. "These families have fallen into an acute financial crisis due to the pandemic, causing high numbers of semester drops."
He went on to say that the students who have had to drop their semester are lagging behind socially as well as psychologically.
He further added that private universities are financially prosperous. "They have profited for a long time. If they wish, they can waive the fees completely for the students who are dropping semesters due to financial reasons.
This would not disrupt the educational lives of those students."