Invest in education to reduce inequality

Quality education is urgently needed in Bangladesh as the country is progressing at a fast pace. Unfortunately, despite having a large number of youth, the dearth of skilled and competent human resources is felt by most of the employers in the country. The problem is two-pronged. First, our high economic growth has not been accompanied with enough jobs for the youth who enter the job market—two million of them every year. Opportunities for those who want to be self-employed are also insufficient. Second, those who seek jobs are not suitable for the labor market. Employers do not find them good enough to do the job. So, the scope for harnessing youth potential through education, skills, and access to finance is inadequate.

This also speaks of the quality of education imparted by the educational institutions in our country. Several studies have indicated poor quality of education at various levels—from primary to tertiary. Despite progress in several educational indicators in recent years, the quality of education has not improved much. Particularly, poor performance in mathematics, science, and English even after secondary- and higher secondary-level education is disappointing.

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The Covid pandemic worsened the situation. In-person lessons stopped at schools, colleges, and universities. This has been termed as the greatest disruption in the learning of students. Around 188 countries suspended face-to-face education during the pandemic. Therefore, countries that were already facing a crisis in the case of education could face a learning catastrophe. In Bangladesh, about 40 million students have been affected due to the closure of educational institutions. In the last two years, students suffered a learning loss that is irreparable in many ways. Very few institutions provided online education. Those who did, the quality of their lessons were rather poor. All these are expected to have an impact on the lifelong earnings of many youth as the loss has been on many fronts. These include learning loss, experience loss, employment loss, and disruption of social and professional interactions. This has taken a toll on their mental health, too, as they were in isolation and anxiety during this difficult time.

To overcome the challenges in our education sector, adequate resources are required. Sadly, the budget for the education sector has been stagnant at around two percent of the GDP for the last few years. In the national budget for 2021-22 fiscal year (FY), the education sector received only 2.08 percent of the GDP and 11.9 percent of the total budget. The allocation is much smaller than what is suggested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). The UN agency recommends allocating four to six percent of the GDP for education in its Education 2030 Framework for Action. However, the Eighth Five-Year Plan (FYP) of Bangladesh sets the target to increase budget allocation to 3.5 percent as a share of GDP by 2025, four percent by 2031, and five percent in 2041. However, at the current rate of resource allocation, the education budget as a share of GDP may reach up to 2.15 percent in 2025, 2.26 percent in 2031, and 2.43 percent in 2041. Hence, the immediate target must be breaking the cycle of two percent of GDP for education and raising it to at least 2.5 percent in the upcoming budget for FY2022-23. For poor and low-income families, public expenditure plays a positive role. Unfortunately, in the rural areas, out-of-pocket expenditure on education is increasing. High personal expenditure on education may discourage parents to educate their children, especially in poor rural families. This could also increase the inequality between rural and urban areas further.

Higher allocation in the budget is, however, not the only remedy to help recover from the learning loss due to the pandemic, as well as improve the quality of education in Bangladesh in general. The budget for education should be spent efficiently. The allocated resource remains underutilised and the budget allocations for most sectors, including education, are revised downwards due to low spending. Often, there is more interest in physical infrastructure and less on soft infrastructure. Hence, recruitment of the adequate number of teachers at schools and their training are less prioritized by the authorities. As a result, the teacher-student ratio in schools is low. For example, in 2020, the teacher-student ratio in the country was 1:40. Such a low teacher-student ratio—particularly in primary and secondary levels of schooling, which build the foundation of learning for students—leads to poor quality of education, particularly in science and mathematics. Moreover, the number of trained schoolteachers is low. Available data indicates that as of 2020, the percentage share of trained teachers was 66.4 percent. Teaching is no longer considered as an attractive profession, and the lack of meritorious teachers is one of the reasons for the poor quality of our education.

Covid has intensified the already existing challenges in accessing quality education in Bangladesh. There seems to be a lack of understanding that investment in human capital is key to economic development. Skilled human resources have more opportunities in the labor market, and they are more productive and economically better off than those who are not. They also contribute to their economies. As Bangladesh is on its journey of graduating to the Developing Countries group by 2026, and becoming an upper middle-income country by 2031, investment in education is vital not only for its smooth and sustainable transition, but also for reducing inequality among its citizens.

Dr. Fahmida Khatun is executive director at the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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