Investing in education to reduce inequalities

Quality education is urgently needed in Bangladesh as the country is advancing at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, despite a large number of young people, the shortage of qualified and competent human resources is felt by most employers in the country. The problem is twofold. First, our strong economic growth has not been accompanied by enough jobs for young people entering the labor market, two million of them every year. The opportunities for those who want to be independent are also insufficient. Second, those seeking employment are not suited to the labor market. Employers don’t find them good enough to do the job. Thus, the opportunity to harness the potential of young people through education, skills and access to finance is insufficient.

It also speaks about the quality of education provided by the educational institutions of our country. Several studies have indicated the poor quality of education at different levels, from primary to tertiary. Despite progress in several education indicators in recent years, the quality of education has not improved significantly. In particular, poor results in mathematics, science and English, even after secondary and upper secondary education, are disappointing.

The Covid pandemic has made the situation worse. In-person classes have stopped at schools, colleges and universities. This has been called the biggest disruption in student learning. About 188 countries have suspended face-to-face teaching during the pandemic. As a result, countries that were already facing an education crisis could face a learning disaster. In Bangladesh, around 40 million students have been affected due to the closure of educational institutions. Over the past two years, students have suffered a learning loss that is irreparable in many ways. Very few institutions provided online education. Those who did, the quality of their courses was rather poor. All of these are expected to impact the lifetime earnings of many young people, as the loss has occurred on many fronts. These include loss of learning, loss of experience, loss of employment, and disruption of social and professional interactions. It also took a toll on their mental health, as they were isolated and anxious during this difficult time.

To overcome the challenges of our education sector, adequate resources are needed. Unfortunately, the education sector budget has stagnated at around 2% of GDP for some years. In the national budget for the financial year 2021-22, the education sector received only 2.08% of GDP and 11.9% of the total budget. The allowance is much lower than what is suggested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). The UN agency recommends allocating four to six percent of GDP to education in its Education 2030 framework. However, Bangladesh’s Eighth Five-Year Plan (FYP) sets a target to increase the budget allocation to 3.5% as a percentage of GDP by 2025, 4% by 2031 and 5% in 2041. However, at the current rate of resource allocation, the education budget as a percentage of GDP can reach 2.15% in 2025, 2.26% in 2031 and 2.43% in 2041. Therefore, the immediate objective must be to break the cycle of 2% of GDP for education and increase it. to at least 2.5% in the next budget for fiscal year 2022-23. For poor and low-income families, public spending plays a positive role. Unfortunately, in rural areas, out-of-pocket spending on education is increasing. High out-of-pocket expenses for education can discourage parents from educating their children, especially in poor rural families. It could also further increase inequality between rural and urban areas.

Higher allocation in the budget is however not the only remedy to help recover from learning loss due to the pandemic, as well as improve the quality of education in Bangladesh in general. The education budget must be spent efficiently. The allocated resource remains underutilized and budgetary allocations for most sectors, including education, are being revised downwards due to low spending. Often, the focus is more on the physical infrastructure and less on the soft infrastructure. Thus, the recruitment of a sufficient number of teachers in schools and their training are less of a priority for 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, especially at the primary and secondary levels of education, which form the basis of student learning, leads to poor quality education, especially in science and mathematics. Moreover, the number of trained teachers is low. Available data indicates that in 2020, the percentage share of trained teachers was 66.4%. Teaching is no longer considered an attractive profession, and the lack of deserving 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 investing in human capital is the key to economic development. Qualified 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 economy. As Bangladesh is poised to graduate to the group of developing countries by 2026 and become an upper-middle-income country by 2031, investment in education is vital not only for its smooth and sustainable, but also to reduce inequalities between its citizens.

Dr Fahmida Khatun is executive director of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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