Gopal Sengupta from Canada
The Financial Express, 3.08.2012
Education in Bangladesh has moved on in four decades since independence – and how. There are few areas of our life that have received such sustained focus during this period – from the government at every level as well as from families across the country – as education. And the reason is obvious. Education is a passport to economic prosperity and it is also the best guarantee we have of a free, open, and civilised society.
When economists at the universities of Canada used the International Adult Literacy Survey to estimate the skills of people in 14 countries entering the workforce at different times between 1960 and 1995, they found a clear and significant association between investments in “human capital,” a particularly awful term to describe the teaching of the needed skills, and a country’s subsequent growth and labour productivity. A rise of 1.0 per cent in literacy score relative to the international average was associated with a 2.5 per cent relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent rise in GDP (gross domestic product) per head.
What we are witnessing is a literal explosion in education. Here I am going to discuss mostly higher education but the themes are equally relevant to primary and secondary school education.
My first theme is growth. Across the world, enrolments in higher education increased from 13 million in 1960 to 80 million at the end of the century. In developed countries, half the population of graduating high school students goes on to higher education. It is seen as a right, just as secondary education became a right in Europe and North America some 60 years ago. In China, the proportion of the population in higher education has doubled in a decade, while in Bangladesh the number of students in higher education almost doubled from 500,000 to 2.0 million in the 1990’s.
Growth, as we all know, creates growing pains and these have been felt at the institutional as well as national level. The University of Dhaka now has about 40,000 enrolled students; the National University of Bangladesh has about 200,000 students; and other universities in Bangladesh boast a student roster of about 300,000. How is it possible to maintain quality and ensure that each student receives a personal education, in the face of these enormous numbers? And it is not as if we are all trying to manage this growth in a stable domestic environment. Higher education is now an open and globally competitive market, in which the most talented and best funded students, as well as the best qualified professors, are drawn to those countries and institutions which have the greatest resources and reputation. There are the problems and challenges, as well as opportunities, presented by the flight of technically qualified Bangladeshi graduates to the West. But we have our own NRB (non-resident Bangladeshi) issue in Europe and North America as an indication is there that many have no plans to return home.
The solution, I believe, lies in the selective introduction of private capital into the educational system, in the intelligent application of technology, and in the customisation of education to local needs and – through the power of technology – to the individual.
What does private capital offer? One thing it offers is money. Governments around the world find it easy enough to see the return on investment from education – in terms of enhanced skills and labour productivity – but not so easy to find the necessary resources.
Not many of us doubt the pre-eminence of US universities in higher education, as they dominate every league table of academic excellence. There are many successful models to look at beyond the US. In Malaysia, private universities were first established in the mid-1990’s and now outnumber public universities. In Bangladesh, we have witnessed the lack of contribution of the private sector. I would advocate for more private engagement in school education in the country.
When we visit Japan, we receive every encouragement to participate in the immense project of raising standards in primary and secondary schools across the country. To some, Japan may seem to have taken the private system to excess. Not everyone would agree, for example, that professors should be paid according to the number of students they attract, as they are in Japan. But the system does seem to be working. Obstacles, political and cultural, are still formidable.
So private capital is one way of addressing the twin challenges of growth and open competition. The application of technology is plainly another. In the United States today, the plain vanilla college textbook is almost a relic. What they sell instead are products that marry conventional text with supplementary web-based materials and support. The programmes are interactive, allowing direct communication between students and professors, making it easy for the student to progress at his or her own pace. The content is customised for the requirements of the individual college and professor, and assessment tools are embedded that allow progress to be assessed on a continuous basis.
Bangladesh has a huge opportunity in this respect, simply because of the country’s rapid progress in the application of technology. One enormous benefit of the introduction of this technology is that it makes the customisation of learning materials so much easier. It suddenly becomes possible to teach the individual rather than the class, at the pace of the individual rather than the class average.
Do I feel optimistic about the future of education in Bangladesh? I certainly do. The elements that have driven the growth of outsourcing in this country -expertise in technology, fluency in the English language, and an entrepreneurial spirit – are all equally relevant to the education sector. If we can harness the power of technology and develop a strong partnership between public institutions and private capital, there is no limit to the opportunity.