EDUCATION: ALL THE BEST LAID PLANS…

May 10, 2020

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Composed by Essa Malik
Composed by Essa Malik

Hadia Abbas, a student in Lahore in the final year of A-levels, has been accepted to a number of universities in the US for an undergraduate programme. But the current travel restrictions will delay her dream of experiencing American college life. So she has decided to defer her admission until she can fly to the US and move in to a dorm in a physical college campus there. “Transfer of knowledge is not the primary purpose of a university education,” Abbas says, “but what is more important is the experience and exposure that one gains.”

Abbas has reached a decision for her foreseeable academic future in an uncertain time. Given the same uncertainty, academic institutions across Pakistan have also been engaged in integral decision-making to adapt to the disruption of the current school year. This is a crucial time for students like Abbas who stand at a new threshold of their academic journeys. With schools closed and exams pushed forward or cancelled, students and parents are uncertain what to expect in the near future. For a student going from one grade to another within the same school system, the problems are manageable; the tougher challenge lies for those students who are scheduled to complete high school this summer.

In March, when schools were shut down across Pakistan in a step to curb the spread of the coronavirus, all graduating high-school students were divided into three groups: those who already had received admission offers from universities; those who awaited their admission decisions; and those who were yet to submit their applications. The most common boards certifying high school completion diplomas in Pakistan are Intermediate FA/ FSc, Cambridge Assessment International Education’s (CAIE) A-level and International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Diploma Programme. When all three boards cancelled exams for this year, all the students were in equal despair.

Weeks ago, CAIE and IB allayed some of the fears by announcing that they will be using multiple tools to assess students’ performances over the past few years and will award grades accordingly. Students are also allowed to defer their exams to the next available testing series. Those students who are preparing for their Intermediate exams still await official notification, but a similar solution is expected.

The course of action CAIE and IB schools have come up with, under the given circumstances, comes with its own set of limitations. They affect CAIE evaluators more than IB. Some schools are still ambiguous on their criterion to come up with a fair grade for a particular student. Many students have the tendency to take internal school assessments — over the course of two years — lightly but then study hard in the last few months and score spectacularly. Such students, for example, stand at a disadvantage, says Samar Sheikh, a college counsellor at a branch of a large chain of private schools established countrywide. “At the same time, it has proven to be a lesson for the next few upcoming classes to partake in all school assessments with utmost vigilance,” she adds.

After the closure of schools and postponement and cancellation of exams, students who expected to start college later this year wait in uncertainty to see where their academic paths will lead them next

In contrast, the performance of International Baccalaureate students will be easier to grade. Taimur Bandey, an IB consultant with vast experience in the A-level system as well, says “IB’s Diploma Programme students stand at a major advantage here since they are assessed throughout the two years of their programme and work on their research and activities, which count towards the majority of their final grade. Hence students’ internal assessment does, in fact, reflect their best effort. The board already has sufficient evidence to be able to predict the students’ grades of the IB final.”

Students who registered privately for their board exams will be the worst hit. They may not be able to show sufficient evidence of their previous performance. In case of failure to provide relevant evidence, they will not be given a grade. Instead they will be offered a refund of the registration fee or the option to defer the exam to the next series.

Once the matter of achieving the official diplomas is resolved, yet another Pandora’s box opens up, bringing with it a multitude of concerns. According to Sehrish Tahir, a college counsellor at a private institution, “Most universities accepting [CAIE and IB students] have assured prospective students flexibility in terms of document submissions to complete the admission processes, but are simultaneously pressurising them to deposit their initial fees for admission confirmation without any guarantees of universities resuming classroom learning this fall.” Moreover, students who currently hold offers from foreign universities are under duress because their fee submission deadlines are approaching, with little sign of international travel restrictions being lifted.

These foreign universities have assured students that, in the case of continued travel limitations, the students will be given complete course access through distance-learning programmes. Many students are sceptical about spending an exorbitant amount of money to attend class from their bedrooms simply on their laptops. But Sheikh optimistically advises students to go ahead with one semester of online learning as, hopefully, it will be followed by more semesters on campus. It will help maintain a sense of continuity among the students and enable them to focus on their end goals, she says.

Foreign universities have assured students that, in the case of continued travel limitations, the students will be given complete course access through distance-learning programmes. Many students are sceptical about spending an exorbitant amount of money to attend class from their bedrooms simply on their laptops.

Certainly, universities would want to start their operations as early as possible because extended closures would mean limited resources, which could have a trickle-down impact on the staff. But the dynamics of the situation require all decision-makers to consider the grave consequences of premature relaxations. Hafiz Abdul Rehman, father of a student currently awaiting the fate of her final Intermediate exams, says, “Nothing is more important than the wellbeing of our children. A slightly interrupted academic journey will not harm her as much as, God forbid, this virus.”

Local universities in Pakistan have been as forthcoming as possible in these unprecedented times by moving all admission processes online, introducing flexibility in document requirements and placating the fears of worried students who approach them. However, there is only so much that can be done. Most of the universities have shared various options that potential new applicants can opt for, but each university seems to be coming up with solutions according to its own dynamics.

For instance, some are of the view that students may start the fall semester in August/September 2020 with or without any official graduating diploma from their high schools, that students can appear for the board exams whenever they are held next and then submit their results accordingly. But in case a student is unable to meet the admission criteria in the postponed board exams, where do they stand then? Will such a student discontinue or defer their degree mid-semester?

Other universities have said they prefer students to start the fall semester only after having received their official diplomas. In case students opt to appear for the exams later, they should defer their admission and join only after obtaining the required diploma. There is also a possibility that, once a decision is made about the Intermediate FA/ FSc exams, an across-the-board policy may be shared and all universities in the country may have to abide by it.

Local universities in Pakistan have been as forthcoming as possible in these unprecedented times by moving all admission processes online, introducing flexibility in document requirements and placating the fears of worried students who approach them. However, there is only so much that can be done.

Upon contacting some people in the local boards, it was communicated that a meeting is tentatively expected to take place in June to revisit the decision regarding Intermediate FA/FSc exams. Until then, it remains a trial and error situation; the school staff can do its best to counsel students to make the right choices but cannot be certain of the outcomes.

A principal of Intermediate FSc students in Nowshera tells Eos, “Until we have a clear idea of what the future holds, the students are diligently continuing their preparations for their board exams.”

But can the students really focus on exam preparation with such uncertainty looming ahead?

Ali Mehdi, a student enrolled in the final year of FSc says, “I know I should be studying for the exams as they may be announced any time. But the truth is that without a fixed timeline, it is next to impossible [to focus on studying].” He sheepishly adds, “I just end up gaming all day.”

Currently enrolled for the final Intermediate exams, Attiya Rehman shares her dilemma: “While we are all trying to maintain a steady routine to prepare for the board exams, the ambiguity of the future is fairly demotivating. Nevertheless, we are persevering [in our studies].” For her, an academic accomplishment is just within reach, but she cannot grasp it.

“The past few weeks have changed the dynamics of students and parents’ decision-making for the future,” says Tahir. Parents have seen students being stuck in foreign countries, unable to return home in the face of this crisis and are now quite sceptical about sending off their own child. The economic impact on most people’s income has also made the lofty sums of foreign education fees too expensive for many who could have afforded it previously. “In the long run, the trend may move from American and European universities, more towards the Middle East,” she says.

But all is not lost. Most academic counsellors encourage students to make good use of their time.

Zahra Ejaz, manager for college programmes at another large private school network in Pakistan, says that while schools may be closed, students should constantly be in learning mode. They should be aware of how crucial this time will prove to be. “It is expected that, in the upcoming application cycles, universities will want to know how the students used this time frame and what impact it has had on them,” Ejaz says.

“Students can sign up for a variety of online courses — many of which have become free of charge during this period — contribute to their local communities and facilitate the less fortunate,” she suggests. “Another interesting dimension can be the role of each student in his or her household and how they see it evolving during this time. Students undoubtedly have the opportunity to build life-skills beyond their academics, which will reflect well on them.”

While schools, colleges, universities and examination boards are trying to ensure that students do not lose any unnecessary time in embarking upon their journey to start undergraduate programmes, it is important to understand that everyone across the globe is navigating the same uncharted waters. In such a case, sometimes it is perfectly normal to relinquish a bit of control over one’s destiny and let things fall into place of their own accord.

In Pakistan, the 1970s were a turbulent time, with war, political unrest, military coups and the works. There were lengthy closures of education institutions, resulting in a lot of delayed degrees then too. Today when you look at the people who faced those delays, many of them are doing well in their fields and the months or years of delay have not blemished their success in life. We are in the middle of a global crisis, which cannot be taken lightly due to its possibly fatal repercussions. In any decision-making process, it should be clear that the health and wellbeing of students and staff hold far more weight than a few months of irregularities in a student’s academic trajectory.

The writer is an IBA alumnus who is passionate about providing opportunities for a better world to the future generations of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 10th, 2020