December 26, 2023
DHAKA – The education part of Awami League’s 2008 election manifesto, titled “Charter for Change (Din Bodoler Shanad),” promised the highest budget allocation for education, 100 percent net enrolment in primary schools by 2011, ending illiteracy by 2017, higher education quality, depoliticisation of educational institutions, and a new education policy, among other things. It also mentioned a significantly higher salary scale for teachers as well as teachers’ pay and service commissions.
Voted to power with an overwhelming parliamentary majority that year, Sheikh Hasina’s government gave the nation an education policy in 2010. It reflected a reasonable consensus about the nation’s educational expectations. But in over a decade since the policy was announced, a concerted plan has not been prepared, and major efforts to implement the policy remain absent.
Notably, a permanent statutory education commission that could guide policy-based national educational development, as recommended in the 2010 policy, has not been established. An overall education law, akin to the right to education law enacted in India in 2009, has not been adopted. We did not see a real increase in the education budget either. The 100 percent target of primary education enrolment and literacy rate, though progress has been made, are yet to be achieved. Although government teachers’ salaries increased, they complain of discrimination between them and other civil service cadres.
The permanent pay and service commissions for teachers have not been established, and a plan for remuneration and incentives for teachers not employed directly by the government, who are the majority, does not exist. Quality of education has not improved; it remains elusive as ever.
Inclusive and equitable quality education is the core of the sustainable development goals’ (SDGs) education agenda, and Bangladesh has committed itself to working towards the goals. The agenda, we may recall, are free, equitable, inclusive and quality primary and secondary education for all, as well as a major expansion of lifelong learning opportunities to be achieved by 2030.
Yet, since 2010—or even after 2015, when the commitment was made—a plan or strategy has not been formulated, not to speak of carrying out such a plan. A programme has not been taken up even to achieve the target of compulsory education up to Class 8 by 2014, envisaged in the 2010 policy.
The official narrative of progress is mainly about numbers—number of schools, colleges and universities, rising enrolment, girls catching up and surpassing boys in enrolment, number of new teachers employed, total students at primary and secondary schools brought under stipend schemes, total textbooks distributed every year, number of multimedia classrooms and so on. The high pass rate in public exams is also noted, though there is scepticism about whether the rate actually measures students’ competence.
The list of advancements need not be underestimated, but the problem is that these are inputs into the system, which do not necessarily produce results in learning outcomes. Unless these inputs are of adequate quantity and quality, put to proper use by skilled and dedicated teachers and managers, and managed efficiently with accountability and a focus on results, they will not bear fruit. What ultimately counts is the knowledge and skills students acquire, verified by a credible method of assessing what they learn.
Equitable, inclusive quality education at primary and secondary levels cannot be achieved with the current public investment. The budget allocation has remained at around two percent of GDP for a decade. In fact, since 2020, when the education system was disrupted by Covid-19, the budget has dipped further. In real terms, inflation and increasing enrolment have put per student expenditure on a downward trend. Now, it is approximately $200, which is about half of the average for South Asia.
The public finance scarcities are attempted to be made up by family expenditure, which negatively impacts equity and inclusion. In 2021, Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring Report estimated that 71 percent of education expenses in Bangladesh were borne by families. A recent Education Watch survey (to be released shortly) showed that, on average, a family spent Tk 13,882 during January-December, 2022 per child in primary school and Tk 27,340 at the secondary level. Major expenses were due to private tutoring and coaching, purchase of commercial guidebooks, fees for testing and various activities charged by both primary and secondary schools, as well as transportation and lunch.
According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2022, the average monthly household income in 2022 was Tk 32,422. These costs are clearly prohibitive for the poor and lower-middle income families. They will try to make difficult compromises and sacrifices, but still quality education for their children will remain beyond their reach.
Authorities have ignored the pleas of education researchers (such as those who prepared the recent Education Watch reports) to take recovery and redressal measures for pandemic-induced learning losses. Instead, decision-makers were keen on rushing back to a normal school routine. A new school curriculum has been launched aiming to change, in a major way, classroom practices, tests and examinations, and learning content. It has introduced what is called “experiential learning,” replacing customary teacher-directed lessons.
The curriculum reform has been defended with the argument that it will make private tutoring and coaching, commercial guidebooks, and memorisation for tests redundant. But rewriting the curriculum and even textbooks cannot achieve these desirable objectives by itself. Examination reforms, under the banner of creative questions, were introduced a decade ago with the same objectives. It did not work because the teachers were not prepared, and they did not get the necessary support and incentives.
Schools did not have the resources to put in place enough qualified teachers, create the learning environment in classrooms, and acquire learning materials and aids, including the means to use ICT-assisted learning.
The latest initiative is like a deja vu, but with potential for larger and long-lasting harms, because the changes intended are more wide-ranging and simultaneous, with even lesser preparation than for the earlier reform. Some educationists argue that the reform team has not grasped the nature and process of reform it wants to implement.
As long as education policymaking and decision-making is ad hoc and fragmented, with fleeting attention given to only parts of the system, the reform is likely to fail. When reforms are not backed by political commitment to mobilise necessary resources and some hard choices, such as depoliticising educational institutions, the quality and equity objectives will remain elusive.