The University Grants Commission (UGC) will provide Tk10,000 in soft loans to needy students of public universities so that they can each buy a smartphone to participate in online classes.
The disbursement of the loans will start soon, said UGC sources, adding that the commission will hand over the funds to the respective university administrations.
The universities will then disburse the money to the students as loans, and they will get time until their graduation to pay the amount back. The monthly installment will not be more than Tk500, sources said.
This move shows that the UGC has put in motion a plan to help students adjust to the new normal amid the Covid-19 outbreak, as there is still no solid indication that the present uncertainties in the education sector will pass anytime soon.
Speaking to The Business Standard, UGC Chairman Professor Kazi Shahidullah said, "The Ministry of Education has given its consent for disbursing the loans among needy students."
"The government is positive about the matter, so we can start the disbursement process within a very short amount of time," he said.
Meanwhile, UGC Director (Public University Management Division) Md Kamal Uddin said, "The commission has received the list of needy students from 33 public universities so far.
"We are working to check and re-check the lists of the students. After finalising the list, we will send it to the education ministry for final approval. The ministry had actually asked us to prepare the list on June 6 so that all the students could participate in their classes," he added.
A recent survey conducted by the UGC had found that 14% of the students in public universities have no smartphones, and they cannot participate in online classes.
On August 9, the UGC directed public universities to prepare lists of indigent students who need assistance to buy smartphones for attending online classes amid the Covid-19 crisis.
On June 30, the UGC urged the government to introduce free internet packages for university students to enable them to participate in the online education process. It had also sent letters to the Posts and Telecommunications Division, ICT division, and Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Meanwhile, on July 2, the University Teachers' Network–an association of public and private university teachers–demanded that a special allowance of Tk3,000 per month be provided to each needy student negatively impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.
The organisation also sought one-time or long-term scholarships and interest-free loans of Tk20,000 for at least half of the students of public universities.
According to the UGC, there are 53 public universities with more than three lakh students. About 50,000 students will take the soft loans. This is why the government will have to disburse at least Tk50 crore for this purpose.
The students of the National University and private universities will not get the loan facility.
Responding to a query, Dhaka University's Vice Chancellor Professor Akhtaruzzaman said, "We are working to prepare a policy on how we will disburse the loans and how the students will pay them back.
"We see the UGC's move as positive. It will definitely encourage the students."
Educators for transparency in disbursement
Noted academic Professor Manzoorul Islam said, "The UGC's decision to provide loans to the students is good. But it would have been excellent had the government provided digital tools to the needy students free of cost."
"I hope that the disbursement process will be transparent," he continued.
Dr Samina Lutfa, one of the spokespersons of the Bangladesh Teachers' Network, said, "A good number of students cannot attend online classes due to: a lack of digital devices, costly internet packages, poor internet connections, and an interrupted electricity supply."
"It is good that the government will provide loans to the poor students, but the government can give the funds as grants too," she said.
She continued, "Our education system itself is discriminatory in various ways and we do not want to see any further discrimination during the Covid-19 crisis. Therefore, we urged the government to take all necessary preparations before launching online classes."
"However, the government did not pay any heed to the matter," she said.