Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal presented the 49th national Budget of Bangladesh on June 11. We have, in the meantime, received many responses on the various aspects of the budget, including the education sector. Reflecting on the budget, Professor M. Abu Eusuf of Dhaka University of the department of Development Studies has mentioned that `education sector is not listed in the topmost prioritised sectors, which should have been on top five. …We have been demanding separate education budget for long.' Dr. Manzoor Ahmed, Professor Emeritus of BRAC University has expressed frustration for noncompliance of the recommendations of education NGOs in particular, in a column in an English daily headlined `Pedestrian Education Budget'. He wrote, `One suggestion, not considered by the authorities, was to make a special allocation of Tk 50.00 billion to be used to engage education NGOs actively at the upazila level to support measures responsive to the specific circumstances of students, families and communities. These could be designed at school level to prevent dropout and irregular attendance, offer extra lessons and counselling for lagging students and incentives for teachers to take on these tasks. A fund of Tk 10 crore on average for each upazila … could be allocated to support students through school-based plans. These plans could be reviewed and approved at upazila level by an education recovery committee involving local government, education authorities and NGOs, and implemented with the help of the education NGOs.'
FINANCE MINISTER ON EDUCATION: The Finance Minister in his Budget speech on education in the proposed budget said: `You are aware that we have declared holidays to all academic institutions of the country since mid-March as part of our efforts to enforce social distancing to contain the spread of the COVID19 novel corona virus. This has essentially caused a discontinuation of the regular academic curriculum of around 40 million students across the country. Although the government has introduced the distant learning programme on a limited scale during the holidays, the loss to the overall education sector has been enormous. Our most important task in education for the next fiscal year would be to bring back continuity in the curriculum and cover this loss from long study break. We are allocating sufficient resources to this sector in the next fiscal year to achieve this objective'. He added saying, 'Works are underway to establish interactive classrooms in 503 schools, and soon we will be providing internet connectivity to all primary schools, including two laptops and two multimedia projectors to each school. As part of our effort to make primary education more inclusive, we are providing assistive devices like wheel chairs, crutches, hearing aids, etc. to the children with special needs. In addition, for the children from small ethnic minorities, we are developing textbooks in their own alphabets and recruiting teachers with relevant language skills. In addition, we have launched some exceptional initiatives, such as special school feeding in poverty stricken areas, preparing profile of each pupil, setting up of ICT labs in schools and expanding cub scouting, which will continue in the next fiscal year.'
There are reasons to appreciate the steps which the Finance Minister mentioned along with the achievements in terms of increasing the literacy rate and eradicating gender gaps in education. There is no reason to differ with him also when he says, 'we are actively trying to increase the pay and other financial benefits for teachers and others involved in education management.'
PRIORITY ASSESSMENT: It seems there are differences of opinion as regards prescriptions for education sector which is not unusual in a democratic society. I am of the humble view that first of all we need to assess the damages caused by COVID-19, particularly its impact on education and human development. UNDP warned last month, on May 20 that 'Global human development - which can be measured as a combination of the world`s education, health and living standards -- could decline this year for the first time since the concept was introduced in 1990. …The world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, including the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Each has hit human development hard but, overall, development gains accrued globally year-on-year. … COVID-19 with its triple hit to health, education, and income may change this trend.'
Declines in fundamental areas of human development are being felt across most countries - rich and poor - in every region. With school closures, UNDP estimates of the "effective out-of-school rate"-the percentage of primary school-age children, adjusted to reflect those without internet access-indicate that 60 per cent of children are not getting an education, leading to global levels not seen since the 1980s. The combined impact of these shocks could signify the largest reversal in human development on record. This is not counting other significant effects, for instance, in the progress towards gender equality.
EQUITY FOCUSSED APPROACH: The drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries that are less able to cope with the pandemic's social and economic fallout than richer nations. In education, with schools closed and stark divides in access to online learning, UNDP estimates show that 86 per cent of children in primary education are now effectively out-of-school in countries with low human development-compared with just 20 per cent in countries with very high human development. But with more equitable internet access, where countries close the gap with leaders in their development group, the current gaps in education could close. Determined, equity-focused interventions can help economies and societies rally, mitigating the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This crisis shows that if we fail to bring equity into the policy tool kit, many will fall further behind. This is particularly important for the 'new necessities' of the 21st century, such as access to the Internet, which is helping us to benefit from tele-education, tele-medicine, and to work from home," says Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office at UNDP. Implementing equity-focused approaches would be affordable. For instance, closing the gap in access to the internet for low-and middle-income countries is estimated to cost just one per cent of the extraordinary fiscal support packages the world has so far committed to respond to COVID-19.
IMPACT ON EDUCATION: BANGLADESH CONTEXT: BRAC, CAMPE & Education OutLoud arranged a webinar on May 19 which was very much a timely initiative and rich in content. I was invited in the webinar but could not participate due to serious illness. Still I managed to send my views about their field findings. I pointed out that it's difficult to comment before publication of the final report of the study. But the document circulated for May 19 webinar seemed to focus on the NGO run educational institutions with more stress and relatively less was said about the mainstream school education in Bangladesh which include public (Govt.) primary schools and government supported (non-govt) secondary schools (which are engaged in the education of 98 per cent of students in the country)
When we mention mainstream education, it may not cover the NGO run institutions though there is much scope to widen the working relation between the two, which include the improvement of working condition and career path of teachers of NGO-run educational institutions as well.
ADDRESSING THE CRISIS: The statements made in the budget speech by the Finance Minister in the face of manifold crisis in education are worth mentioning and there are scopes for specific suggestions for improvement. In this regard I share the views of The Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE): 'Even in crisis situations, the right to education must be protected. We support the efforts of UNESCO and governments in deploying distance learning solutions using appropriate technology and flexible learning approaches, however, note that majority of learners from poor and disadvantaged households have no internet connectivity and lack the resources to access and acquire technology. This situation may further widen the digital divide and hasten the corporate capture of education technologies. Even now, there has been a rush among private ICT firms to aggressively promote and market their digital learning modules and platforms. Much is demanded of teachers, trainers and education personnel as frontline responders to ensuring the continuity of education under the COVID 19 pandemic. Their safety, well-being, job security, training and support should be guaranteed as a priority, to empower them in their efforts to reach all, even the hardest to reach learners i.e., those in rural areas, remote locations, those with special needs -- through suitable, contextually appropriate means." To add to ASPBAE statement, it is also necessary to point out that of late much is said about online education and education on television which definitely deserves appreciation but less or almost nothing is said about the training of teachers and educational institution management in the delivery and preparation of content. Imposition of 5 per cent vat on rowter, necessary for internet connection, and 5 per cent new surcharge on the use of mobile phone, the most vital device of communication from person to person, both at home and abroad are genuine impediments to desired attainment in education and people's mobility at large. These unwise levies and surcharge must be dropped before the budget is passed, in the greater interest of the education sector. It will be wise to provide allocation in this year's budget for the masks, liquid hand soap, sanitizers for the educational institutions with clean water supply and sanitation before the institutions are reopened. The instructions of WHO need to be followed.
In conclusion I would prefer to quote from Gwang-Chol Chang and Satoko Yano, UNESCO's Section of Education Policy posted recently: "With the situation evolving day by day, countries are employing a multiplicity of approaches to minimise the impact of the pandemic on learning. As this snapshot illustrates, policies go beyond rolling out distance learning modalities. They encompass measures to address the social dimensions of the crisis, which is affecting the lives of children in a myriad of ways. Due to prolonged confinement, children are being separated from their peers and teachers and deprived of socialising activities, including sports. As the confinement continues, it is critical to protect their well-being and mental health, and to increase support to families, teachers and caregivers."
Prof. Quazi Faruque Ahmed is Chairperson, Initiative for Human Development (I.H.D) & Member, National Education Policy 2010 Committee, Bangladesh.