The Financial Express, Feb. 1st. 2012
Syed Yamin Bakht
The country’s education sector is at a crossroads. Although some progress has been made in the spread of primary education, hardly any improvement has taken place at the secondary level while the quality of higher education has largely declined over the past two decades or so.
The country’s literacy rate — functional literacy at that, it is claimed — is presently hovering at around 56 per cent. This means 56 people out of 100 on an average are able to “write a letter for communication”. Moreover, there exists a gender disparity as the literacy rates among men is 62 per cent and it is 51 per cent among women.
The government currently spends about 14 per cent of the national budget or about 2.3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the education sector, which is lower than the other regional countries. Of the total government allocation, primary education understandably receives the lion’s share of about 45 per cent, secondary education 22 per cent and higher or tertiary education receives about 33 per cent.
Over the past two decades, the government has rightly placed increased emphasis on improving the primary education sector around the country. Although the initiatives taken so far have yielded some positive results, much more needs to be done to improve the overall quality of primary education. The focus has so far been on increasing the spread of primary education with little attention being given towards improving the quality.
Following adoption of the Education for All agenda in the early 1990s, the gross enrolment rate in primary school has presently increased to over 90 per cent from 68 per cent. Gender parity has been largely achieved with increased enrolment of girls. However, the dropout rate still remains very high, particularly in the rural areas. According to official estimates, some 50 per cent of the students enrolled drop out before completing primary education. This indicates a reversal of an earlier improvement trend when the primary education completion rate improved from 43 per cent 1990 to 70 per cent in 1998.
The overall quality of primary education also remains poor, with a shortage of proper classrooms and teachers particularly in the rural areas. Other problems which have been identified include inadequately trained teachers, high teacher-student ratios and the lack of proper books, supplies and facilities.
Thus, the target set in the National Education Policy 2009 of achieving a 100 per cent literacy rate by 2014 and a 100 per cent primary education completion rate by 2015 is unlikely to be realised.
The secondary-level education has hardly seen any improvement in recent years. In fact, policy-level focus on improving the secondary education sector has largely been absent. According to a survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, overcrowding at the secondary level is common as the number of schools has simply not expanded to accommodate all those graduating from primary schools. The secondary school enrolment rate presently stands at only around 44 per cent.
The issue of quality is also a big concern in the secondary education sector. With high dropout rates, the secondary schools are beset with problems like high teacher-student ratios, inadequately trained teachers, inefficient management of schools, poor enforcement of rules and regulations and inadequate learning materials and facilities.
In fact, the quality of education in the secondary schools is showing a declining trend. A survey conducted by the Campaign for Popular Education found that in 1999, of the students who entered the 6th grade about 31 per cent survived till the 10th grade examination, but only 20 per cent did so in 2008.
With the declining standard of education at the secondary and higher secondary level, the demand for private tutors has increased tremendously. As a result, there has been a mushrooming growth of coaching centres around the country in recent years.
At the tertiary level education, access and fairness remains a major obstacle. Here again, maintaining quality standards is a big problem. In addition to Bangladesh National University and Bangladesh Open University, there are some 30 public universities in the country. Higher education in these institutions is heavily subsidised by the government and is virtually free. With many of the students in these institutions coming from well-off families, subsidsing their education is something the cash-strapped government can ill afford.
The quality in these public higher education institutions is also showing a declining trend. The public universities cannot attract quality teachers any more because of the poor pay scale, having to compete with the private universities now. The academic environment has deteriorated considerably because of the negative brand of campus politics practised by a section of both students and teachers.
Since the Private University Act was adopted in 1992, the number of private universities has increased rapidly and stands at around 61 today. Although this has somewhat increased the access to higher education opportunities within the country, the cost of education in these institutions remains prohibitively expensive. Moreover, minimum uniform academic standards are not maintained in most of these institutions because of the weak regulatory framework.
Despite the recent growth in the number of higher education institutions, both the public and private higher education institutions in the country together are still unable to provide opportunities for the increasing number of eligible students willing to go for higher studies. As a result, a large number of students are going abroad to pursue higher studies.
Another important area that has been largely neglected by the government policymakers is the development of the technical and vocational education sector. This area has hardly developed over the years. Improvements in technical and vocational education could help the students who cannot pursue higher studies to acquire other employable skills.
Development of this sector will enable the country to produce skilled manpower in large numbers to meet the growing needs of the economy. In addition, skilled workers earning higher wages can be exported to different countries, where presently mostly unskilled ones are being sent, earning poor wages.