The media report quoted below says it all. "By the end of 2022 Bangladesh had nearly 800,000 unemployed university graduates, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). This unemployment rate was 12 per cent (tertiary), highest among all levels of education, according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2022 published on Wednesday. The unemployment rate among higher educated people was 11.2 per cent in the previous LFS in 2016-17, which shows that joblessness rate among educated youth is growing," says a report published in national English daily.
The data above makes it obvious that the disconnect between education and employment is real and growing. It has been growing for long and not much has been done and maybe not much can be done. But of course we keep on complaining without facing reality.
Every year there is a lot of weeping and lamenting around this issue and shusils complain about the mess society is in and how terrible it is that the formal sector employment of graduates, the ultimate elite of society, is in the dumps. This is usually followed by the talk shows and media columns which end up in nothing and next year of course the rate goes higher. And the ritual is repeated. It would seem that we like to lament the inevitable.
While in many columns and speeches this takes on ranting colours, a simple fact points to the actual nature of the problem, the failure of the formal sector in what is increasingly being described as an "informal state" . The media report says, "according to the survey, the unemployment rate was low among persons with low or no education, but the rate of joblessness increased in line with the rise in education level."
In other words, the problem is with the production of the wrong kind of graduates, not rising unemployment. They just don't qualify for jobs and the quality of their education is not only inadequate but it's wildly unfit for participating in the labour market.
Given that surmise it should not be shocking that unemployment was 8.87 per cent in 2022 for those with higher secondary and 2.82 per cent with those with secondary education. The number would be 8 lakhs without jobs. But essentially it's a narrative of failure and although the reason stares at everyone's face, no one wants to deal with it.
Economist Rizwanul Islam, has basically asked if graduate education is useful since it doesn't qualify them for jobs. Clearly the labour market and the education system is out of sync. So why should investment in the education sector be justified?
The gap is simple. The kind of education that is offered doesn't have market demand and only a single stream general education is useless when the market needs vocational education. Thus those who graduate are almost buying a ticket to unemployment.
If everyone knows this, why does it gone on. The answer is probably cultural and may widely be described as "shushilsm". This drives the educated middle class and is the source of both our cultural and educational policies.
For example, the female unemployment rate in rural areas fell drastically from 26.1 per cent in FY17 to 18.66 per cent in 2022. "It indicates that rural women have participated in the workforce thanks to the presence of NGOs and other organizations," BIDS supremo Binayak Sen has said.
The period from 1947 to 1971 was the golden era of this class as their size was small but their impact was higher. The Ekushe events propelled them to the centre stage and they thought that this position was permanent and the situation would remain the same. It was basically a socially conservative education concept -though many policy makers and thought leaders saw themselves as politically radical- that considered general education as the ultimate goal for all.
Learning for employment was looked down upon and this has filtered into many policy levels creating a system which looks down on economic professions and ennobles white collar desk jobs be it that of an amla or a teacher or even a clerk.
However, the economics has shifted and in fact had long before, creating a backlog of suicidal decisions which refused to accept the need for a proper curriculum that serves economic activities. In many ways it is rooted in colonial culture where general education and the legal profession, producing collaborators and acting as intermediaries for the Crown was considered the noblest activity driving education. A good leftover example is the trashing of businessmen as MPs but acceptance of the political "middlemen" as a profession. Any market based activity is considered negative.
And that is what lies at the root of the useless education system.
Most, perhaps as high as in Bangladesh, 80 plus members of the labour force are in the informal sector. They include wage labourers, self-employed persons, unpaid family labour, piece-rate workers etc. While they are a single cluster including both skilled and unskilled, the performance of the skilled workers is very positive.
The biggest chunk of skilled workers is of course the migrant workers which are anywhere between 20-25 million and way better paid than all other workers. Their role in the economy has been the most remunerative and it's an entirely skill driven informal sector.
The other sector is digital freelancing which includes many graduates. Not only doesn't Bangladesh need graduates, many graduates don't need Bangladesh either as migration becomes increasingly a jump into employment in various other more practical economies.
While the formal sector is down, the informal flourishes when it comes to connecting education to the economy.