Technical and vocational education and training or TVET is considered a critical tool for promoting socioeconomic equity-cum-inclusion as well as sustainable development. The education minister has recently announced lifting of age restrictions on admission to TVET courses at polytechnic institutes. Now, people of any age can seek admission to diploma courses in technical areas.
It is a praiseworthy move that would help generate additional employment opportunities at home and abroad for Bangladeshi citizens. The move is consistent with the norms practiced by other developing countries, as education is supposed to be an open commodity that should not be restricted by demographic condition like age.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) data (2019), more than half our expatriate workers were unskilled or semiskilled. Their scope for work is gradually shrinking across the globe because of rising competition amid rapid technological advancement. Therefore, creating opportunities for them to receive technical-cum-vocational education in order to enhance their skills is essential for their future survival.
However, attention should also be paid to standardising TVET courses for all irrespective of age or gender.
Initiatives have been taken over the past few decades for increasing the number of TVET students, enhancing their quality of education and establishing linkages with different professions and vocations. The National Skills Development Policy 2011 was framed with that objective in mind. The National Skills Development Authority was also constituted in 2018 under the National Skills Development Act, 2018, which replaced the National Skills Development Council formed earlier in 2008.
A National Technical and Vocational Quality Framework has also been devised that stipulates enhancement of certification quality at six levels. As a result of all these initiatives, it has been possible to raise the proportion of students pursuing technical education to 17 per cent nationally from a mere 1.0 per cent in 2010. But there is still much room for improvements in the area.
The country's youths tend to prefer white-collar office jobs after receiving general education. But not everybody can fulfil that goal. The BBS surveys have clearly shown a linkage between higher education and unemployment. These surveys indicated that the unemployment rate among those who did not receive any formal education was 4.6 per cent. But for those completing primary, secondary and higher secondary education, the rates were 13 per cent, 14.6 per cent and 51.5 per cent respectively. About 47 per cent among those who obtained Bachelor's or Master's degrees did not consider their jobs to be appropriate or commensurate with their expectations.
At the same time, opportunities for imparting training to technical teachers still remain insufficient. Set up in 1966 for a few polytechnic institutes, the lone technical Teachers' Training College still offers 30 seats for admission each year. And the sole vocational teachers' training institute in Bogura appears to have minimal impact on technical teachers' training. At least 400,000 well-trained teachers would be required if the National Skills Development Policy is to be implemented properly. If the teachers themselves are not well-prepared for meeting the demands of fourth industrial revolution, then how can we expect them to educate students in large numbers?
A trend in recent times among the technical education diploma holders has been to seek admission to undergraduate courses. But that consumes a lot of time, and not much value is added to their skills for the jobs market after losing additional four years. Moreover, they have to compete with other graduates then for employment.
Singapore is a good example where the young TVET diploma holders are playing a crucial role in the technological transformation of the manufacturing sector; diplomas are certainly not a bar to their career progression if they perform well in respective jobs. Bangladesh can learn and benefit a lot by following the example of Singapore in the TVET sector.
The latest BBS data have revealed that about 25 per cent of our youths are involved neither in education, nor in training, nor in any jobs. Those who have lost jobs or would lose them due to Covid-19 could be added to this figure. Besides, many expatriate workers are also likely to return home if they lose their jobs in the coming days. Consequently, the competition in the jobs market would be fiercer in the post-Covid-19 era.
Among the returning overseas workers, there would be many skilled ones. While the unskilled or semi-skilled workers would need to upgrade their technical skills, the skilled ones would require incentives and official patronage for becoming entrepreneurs. At present, the Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment has a fund of Tk 20 billion for extending incentives to them. The ministry should see to it that the skilled workers generate employment opportunities not only for themselves, but also for others.
The technologically developed countries of Asia such as Japan, Korea, China and Singapore have built vast infrastructures for technical and vocational education. Side by side, they have been able to promote and ensure social recognition for this category of jobholders.
Therefore, in Bangladesh, emphasis should be placed on proper social appreciation of these technical personnel through changes in societal mindset alongside building required infrastructures. Enhancing technical skills of over 2.0 million youths who enter the jobs market every year has been a huge challenge in the wake of rapid technological progress. Attention should also be paid to ensuring greater participation of women and backward segments of population in this endeavour for the sake of equitable growth.
There is no alternative to expansion of quality technical education if Bangladesh is to graduate into an upper middle-income nation through proper grooming of a multi-dimensional and technically-skilled manpower. This would become all the more important in the post-pandemic global reality. The earlier the authorities concerned realise this, the better will it be for the nation and the economy.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.