They dreamt of having a higher education. Now they struggle just to get by

Sajeeb Hossain, a third-year honours student at Dhaka University, lost his earnings as a private tutor, his only source of making money that he used to pay for his education when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Bangladesh in March last year.

Published : 8 Sept 2021, 07:42 PM
Updated : 8 Sept 2021, 07:43 PM

The closure of the residential hall he was living in forced Sajeeb to return to his village home during the shutdown of all educational institutions. The university launched online classes, but it was very hard for him to attend them due to slow internet connection in his village.

He returned to Dhaka after nearly eight months and opted to lodge in shared accommodation, commonly known as a mess. But he has had little luck finding tutoring work. Parents are now unwilling to bring private tutors to their homes due to fear of infection and a reduction in income.

After a lot of difficulties, he managed a teaching job at a coaching centre. “I'm still in trouble, but my parents have it worse. I've looked long and hard, but haven’t been able to find any tutoring work. Many parents are scared of the virus. And they are facing financial difficulties too.”

Like Sajeeb, many students who pursued higher education in Dhaka were hit hard by the pandemic. Coming from the lower socio-economic classes, studying at a university was a financial struggle in the first place. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

A major setback is the increased cost of living. With job opportunities drying up, many have been forced to take help from families who are already stretched thin.

Sajeeb used to spend about Tk 5,000 a month. Now he is paying over Tk 9,000 a month for food and accommodation. Sajeeb is getting financial assistance from his family, but he hopes his expenses will drop once the halls reopen.

On Mar 22 this year, amid a lull in COVID cases, Education Minister Dipu Moni announced that residential halls would reopen on May 17 and universities would resume classes on May 24. But a second wave of COVID-19, spurred by the emergence of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, forced the government to scrap those plans.

Now that the infection rate has ebbed again, schools and colleges are reopening on Sept 12. The government says universities will reopen soon, following the vaccination of students and teachers.

The basketball ground outside Masterda Surya Sen Hall’s cafeteria is covered with fallen leaves and algae in the absence of students for a long time.

Dhaka University said halls would reopen in phases starting in the first week of October. Masters and honours fourth year students will be prioritised in getting back to the halls. Once their final exams are over, honours first year, second year and third year students will be allowed back to the halls.

“It’s not like that we are able to stay at home (as advised by government). We have to go out. Students should be prioritised for the vaccine and universities should reopen,” said Sajeeb.

The pandemic was a blow also to Imam Hossain, an honours second year student at Jagannath University. At the start of the pandemic, he lost his tutoring work and had to return home. But, as the shutdown trundled on, his family pushed him to get a job. He returned to Dhaka hoping to find one.

“My family does not have the finances to support my education,” Imam said. “Amid such financial and mental strain, it’s difficult to imagine that I could complete my education and find work.”

“I’m not tutoring any more, but working at a coaching centre. The payments I had used to get were enough to keep me going. But without them now, I have to live on loans. I can’t even pay for my room without borrowing.”

Back when he had tutoring work, Imam would not only earn his regular expenses, he would even send some money to his family.

“They need a bit of help at the end of the month and I used to send TK 1,500 – 2,000. My father is getting older as well. They aren’t earning much from their regular sources of income. So, they urged me to work, out of necessity.”

“A friend called me up the other day to tell me that he was taking a job at a garment factory. We never really learned how to do the kinds of work you can find in the village, so we can’t do those jobs. But still, a couple of my friends are trying their best. One of them is even harvesting rice alongside his father.”

At home, Imam did not have the necessary smart devices to participate in online classes. But, since returning to Dhaka, he can usually log in with help from friends.

“I can do classes now,” Imam said. “My older brother even bought me a phone in instalments during Eid-ul-Azha. He works at an NGO and has a family to support.”

In July last year, a committee at Jagannath University, in the face of students’ demand, recommended a tenfold increase in scholarships to address the rent crisis faced by students. The departments formed lists of students in need and provided some support to them.

During the pandemic, the university gave Tk 5,100 a month, Imam said.

“But the mess rent is Tk 2,500 by itself. With other costs and food, you need something like Tk 7,000 a month. The university is giving us some support, but we are still facing difficulties.”

Jahangirnagar University began holding the final examinations for undergraduates and postgraduates virtually in July.

But Farhan Sikdar, who did not have the necessary device, had to borrow mobile phones from others for the exams.

Prior to the pandemic, Farhan lived in a hall and could attend classes regularly. He was also able to support his family by tutoring.

But he could not do online classes because he did not have a smartphone. The department told him to get a loan to buy one. But he did not because he was not sure how he would be able to repay it. “I didn’t have that much money.”

In the middle of this crisis, Farhan’s mother fell ill and the family was forced to take loans for her treatment.

To cope with the strain on their finances, Farhan is working alongside his father, farming on land owned by others.

Another Jahangirnagar University student, Asfar Rahman Nabir, has been living at a mess since September last year because of internet issues and financial strain at home.

“We don’t just tutor for our spending. Many of us are supporting our families with the money.”

Not only has his income fallen as schools and colleges are closed, his day-to-day costs have also gone up.

Before the pandemic, Asfar could travel to his tutoring work on university buses, but now he has to pay to commute.

“When the halls were open, you could get healthy food at a reasonable price. The restaurant food just makes you sick.”

“And we aren’t able to help our families. We’re really struggling. Many of us are already in debt.”

Some departments of Chattogram University are holding in-person final exams, but the institution has not yet reopened the halls or relaunched shuttle train services.

Minhaz Hassan, a fourth-year student at the university, came to Chattogram from a northern district for the exams and is currently living in a mess.

“It costs Tk 2,000 – Tk 2,500 to travel back and forth. Money is also needed for registration. All in all, it’s a lot of pressure. And I can’t find any tutoring work to get by.”

As residential halls are still closed, messes are overflowing with students who have come to take their exams.

“Seats you could get for Tk 700 – Tk 800 now cost Tk 1,500. And then there’s the cost of food. The debt is piling up. My family is struggling too, so I am forced to borrow from friends,” said Minhaz.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher