That education is a fundamental right of every citizen has long been recognised and it has been the topmost priority of the government to ensure education for all. Indeed, one has to commend the leaps that have been made on this front, particularly the gender parity that has been achieved with regard to enrolment at the primary and lower secondary levels. The development of a network of non-formal primary education providers to help raise literacy of adults, who are bypassed by the formal system, has ensured that education is accessible to all groups in the population.
The remarkable developments are, however, overshadowed by a skewed education system that has come into practice in Bangladesh. The heterogeneity in the curricula of the three broad streams—Bangla medium, English medium and religious education—carries the vestiges of an elitist and colonial one. A handful of English-medium schools that primarily follow variants of the British curricula cater to the crème de la crème in the society. Bangla-medium schools, which educate a large section of the student population, follow the syllabus prescribed by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB). There is an “English version” as well to the NCTB curriculum, targeted for those interested in the national curriculum and prefer English as the medium of instruction. A huge number of students attend madrasas, or religious schools, which have a focus on Islamic teachings and customs.
Intrinsic to such a diverse education system is the breeding of disparities—disparities not only in knowledge and training but also in thinking, attitudes, behaviour and values. These inequities understandably lead to discontentment in society which can potentially magnify over time and eventually lead to many social ills including crime and violence. Needless to mention, in recent years, we have seen a sudden rise in crimes in the country which poses a huge threat to the international reputation that we have earned—of being a country experiencing robust economic growth with immense potential and highly resilient people.
Our biggest asset is our demographic dividend. We need to reap the potential of this dividend to multiply and sustain the developments that have been made so far. Education is the key to that. But the skewed education system that we are currently following will only put us on a regressive path, undoing much of the good work that has already been done. Bangladesh aspires to be a developing country by 2021. Towards that end, it is important that we make ourselves and our achievements noticed amongst the global community to not only make an impression but also to realise some of our needs and aspirations. Sadly, we lack that critical attribute to effective expression. Our soft skills are still at a basic stage and highly inadequate. We are missing out on many opportunities in today’s globalised world for our failure to build upon these skills.
The mushrooming of out-of-school coaching centres is a stark manifestation of the sub-standard teaching quality, which includes even the so-called English-medium schools. It is every parent’s desire to provide the best possible education for the child. With increasing incomes and affordability, the demand for English-medium schools has gone up, setting off a thriving business. Inherent in this is the notion that English-medium schools are “superior” to the other streams that are prevalent. While this is true for a few well-established and reputed ones that strive to impart quality education, for most others, it is not so. Good quality teachers, teaching materials and techniques evade most schools.
The weak educational foundation determines the quality of those who are fortunate enough to continue beyond the primary level to secondary and upper levels. They are the ones who graduate and move on to a different capacity of imparting education, thus completing the vicious circle. It is a case of “as you sow, so shall you reap”. The massive burden on the government of subsidising higher education is self-defeating. The focus on conventional higher education with inadequate attention to technical and vocational education combine to widen the skills gap. The traditional notion of the necessity of a “degree” still dominates the society and we strive to attain that, whatever may be the quality. If things move the way they are moving in this sector, we will simply be perpetuating the inequities. There is a huge demand for quality in the labour force which we are not able to meet. We have to be able to break the vicious cycle and ensure that we sow good to be able to reap good.
The fruits of a good education system are known to all. But how can we achieve that? The pathways have already been identified in the extensive research work that has been done on this, by both national experts as well as through the commissioning of international expertise. However, an effective implementation of the recommendations that have been made in these studies remains elusive. The ball is now in our court. We need massive reforms in the education sector. A beginning can be made with a curriculum that promotes equality in society and is in tune with “Digital Bangladesh”. While one is cognisant of the initial problems that are bound to occur with changes in the curriculum, we will have to tackle these head-on, sooner or later. In the short and medium terms, a simultaneous investment in quality teachers needs to take place, which promises to break the vicious circle and eventually transform the system into a self-sustaining and progressive one. This calls for sufficient resources to be dedicated to this sector for an overhauling of the education system, both in terms of delivery and management. Once we are able to achieve this, the multiplier effects of investing in human capital will ensue.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is ushering in a change in the nature of work. To reap the benefits of the revolution and at the same time prepare for the challenges posed by it, investment in human capital is the need of the hour. The foundations of human capital are laid in early childhood through basic schooling and lasting learnings. In the transition to becoming a middle-income country, Bangladesh must be able to equip its workforce accordingly. Education is the backbone of a nation—it can make or break it.
Firdousi Naher is a professor of economics, University of Dhaka. Email: email@example.com
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