In-country international higher education: The right step forward
t's no secret that the Bangladesh education system seems to be, slowly but surely, achieving quite notable standards. Let's take a look at the numbers, starting with primary and secondary education. In the past two decades, Bangladesh has witnessed significant gains for children in access to these levels of schooling. As per the latest government statistics, net primary school enrolment rate stands at 97.74 percent, with the Grade 5 completion pass rate at 97.59 percent. These figures are better than those of many developed countries.
One of the prime reasons for the government's drive to improve education standards to international benchmarks is the growing economy. In fact, Bangladesh is one of the world's fastest growing economies—NASDAQ placed Bangladesh at the third position globally in 2020. A surging economy with increasing foreign investments in modern new-age industries requires a continuous supply of manpower that has international standard higher education and work experience.
There are three principal routes to fulfil this requirement. First, open our borders to expatriates with the required international education and experience—this is a suboptimal strategy that comes at significant cost, with outflow of valuable foreign exchange in terms of salaries, and of course a reduction in job opportunities for the domestic population.
Two, empower our youth to join leading universities on foreign shores to gain the required skills. This is an unviable strategy. On one hand, foreign-educated youth might not come back, procuring gainful employment in foreign shores instead after completing their education. On the other hand, there is a debilitating economic impact on the country due to these local students paying the fees of their respective foreign universities and trying to cover living expenses abroad. In these cases, not only do families end up mortgaging and liquidating all their fixed assets for their children's foreign education, there is also an unceasing outflow of precious foreign exchange.
The numbers are striking. UNESCO reported in 2019 that close to 60,000 Bangladeshis annually went abroad for higher education. The minimum duration of graduation abroad is three years—in other words, at any given moment, one can assume that there are 180,000 Bangladeshi students in foreign universities. The average annual cost of graduate education in any good institution in the West is around USD 20,000, with postgraduate studies costing more. Even quite conservatively, this means that for 180,000 Bangladeshi students, with each spending USD 20,000 on an average, our country remits USD 3.6 billion or Tk 305 billion every year. This is clearly unsustainable.
That leaves us with our third route—that is, to provide affordable international higher education opportunities in-country, which will ensure that our new-age industries get a steady stream of highly skilled domestic manpower possessing global standard education, resulting in appreciable increase in domestic employment rates as well as in per capita income. This can be done by encouraging government and private higher education institutions to initiate academic centres of leading international universities via memorandums of understanding, joint ventures, twinning and similar arrangements. This would offer the same foreign degree inside the country at relatively lower fees as compared to what the student would have had to pay had they undertaken the same programme abroad.
As mentioned earlier, the advantages are immense. Not only are we talking about saving a large part of the annual USD 3.6 billion outflow (the local fees will be paid in Taka and the royalty payments to foreign universities are relatively minimal); it immediately achieves the dual objectives of empowering domestic institutions to match international curriculum, teaching and research standards as well as positioning the country as being at the forefront of progressively internalising global education.
There is a caveat however. Setting up of such international academic centres in the country will involve crores of Taka of investment, and in many cases, foreign investment. However, private companies and foreign investors can be encouraged through limited companies and not through non-profit trusts, as investors bring in equity investments against issued shareholding.
With foresight, the government seems to have already put in process a plan covering all the above aspects. The three pillars of the government's plan for internationalising higher education are the Private University Act (amended in 2010), the Foreign University (Branches and Study Center) Rules 2014 and most importantly, the Strategic Plan for Higher Education (SPHE) 2018-2030, which enshrines the tenets of the government's outlook. While launching the plan, PM Sheikh Hasina reiterated, "SPHE 2018-2030 is a step forward in embodying our determination to help evolve a human capital on par with the global standards […] The Strategy will help make the higher education of Bangladesh globally competitive."
The strategy itself is defined very clearly: "Private universities play an important role in saving foreign currency as many students who would have taken admission in overseas universities enrol in these universities […] As a policy option, the government may allow foreign universities to open their branches in Bangladesh. This will help meet the increasing demand for higher education in the country. In the age of globalisation, shutting out outstanding regional and global providers from our higher education scene would be counterproductive."
In light of the above, let's look at the government's recent decision to approve a Monash College study centre in the country. Monash College is owned by Monash University Australia, a university ranked in the top 60 globally. The Monash College curriculum being offered in Bangladesh is the same as the international Monash College curriculum. The exams and teaching in Bangladesh are under the oversight of the Australian campus and all teachers are apparently being trained and developed in partnership with Monash Australia's direct involvement. Setting up Monash College's study centre here seems to have the potential of not only allowing local students a chance to access global education in the country, but also opens up possibilities of improving local teachers' skills. The entry of Monash could lead to other international universities replicating their own models here in Bangladesh.
While there is still much distance to be covered for Bangladesh to become the international higher education destination of choice for students across the subcontinent, the government's decision to be a global player in international higher education is a step in the right direction.
Dr Shamsul Haque is a former Director, Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka, and former Vice Chancellor, Northern University Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.