The United Nations General Assembly in 2019 declared January 24 as International Day of Education. The fifth International Day of Education will be celebrated on January 24, 2023. The theme of this year's International Education Day is "to invest in people, prioritise education".
Education is the foundation of any society and economy, and it is essential for realising each individual's potential as well as the advancement of human society. Because of this, every society places high importance to education. Education received high importance both in the Millennium Development Goals and in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Education has also been a top priority in Bangladesh since its independence. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, placed high priority on education and took important measures during his brief rule. Immediately after independence, Bangabandhu established an education commission to assess the current educational system and make recommendations for creating a system that would help build Sonar Bangla, Bangabandhu's vision for a prosperous nation. Bangabandhu's government took several measures to promote equitable and inclusive education system including nationalisation of the primary schools and increasing salary of the primary school teachers.
The dream of Bangabandhu's education philosophy was reflected in the Constitution as well as in the education report of 1974. Education is declared as a fundamental right of the people in Bangladesh in the Constitution. In the Article 17 of the Constitution, it is mentioned that the State shall adopt effective measures for the purpose of establishing a uniform, mass oriented and universal system of education and extending free and compulsory education to all children and removing illiteracy.
Over the past 50 years, we have made notable progress in expanding access to education. The rate of literacy has significantly increased from 18 per cent in 1971 to 72 per cent in 2020. Bangladesh has achieved nearly universal net primary enrollment. School dropout rate has decreased and youth and adult literacy has increased considerably. Bangladesh has also achieved gender parity in accessing education. Participation in higher education has also increased significantly. When Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971, there were only four universities, today there are over 150 public and private universities in the country.
Despite substantial progress in expanding educational opportunities, Bangabandhu's dream has remained unfulfilled. A quarter of the population is still illiterate and there are significant gaps in access, participation, and outcomes of education. Many girls and boys have remained out of school. Beyond access and enrollment, Bangladesh's education system continues to face numerous difficulties and challenges. The current educational system in Bangladesh appears to be woefully inadequate in fostering the social goals of building an inclusive and equitable society as well as meeting the needs of the 21st century. Education quality, in addition to quantity, has remained a challenge. Education does not appear to provide the young generation with the knowledge, experience, skills, or values required to thrive in a rapidly changing world. While educated unemployment is on the rise, many employers are concerned about skills and competencies of the university graduates. Most teachers are poorly trained, under-appreciated, and under-paid and their efforts are frequently impeded by outdated instructional approaches and methods.
Although the budget allocation for the education sector has been gradually raising over the previous years, it still remains very low. While the Paris Declaration (A Global Call for Investing in the Futures of Education) requested that at least 4-6 per cent of GDP and/or at least 15-20 per cent of total public expenditure be allocated to education sector, Bangladesh's education expenditure is significantly lower. For instance, the education budget in FY 2022-23 is approximately 1.5 per cent of GDP and approximately 12 per cent of total public expenditure. In comparison to other neighbouring South Asian countries, the percentage of the allocated budget is also low. For example, India's union budget spends close to 4 per cent of its' total GDP on education. As such, Bangladesh's allocation to the education sector has remained very low and the efficient use of limited resources has remained a concern.
Bangladesh will graduate from the LDC group in 2026 and aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2041. As the economy expands, new challenges also emerge. Bangladesh's future growth and prosperity are dependent on how well it converts human population to human resources.
Universities play a key role in preparing the young generation, equipping them with the right skills, attitudes and aptitudes. Higher education is beneficial not only to its students and faculty but also to the society and the country at large. While expanding higher education opportunities and improving its quality and competitiveness are necessary, the recent mushrooming growth of tertiary institutions, particularly the private universities, has raised many questions on their quality and relationship with employability. Success of higher education should be measured not only by quantity but also by the quality of the education provided and the knowledge produced.
The higher education system in Bangladesh is fraught with many issues and challenges. There is a scarcity of capable, qualified, and compassionate teachers in both public and private universities. There are limited facilities for libraries, laboratories, research, and other amenities required for quality education at the university level. As a result, with few exceptions, most Bangladeshi universities failed to provide quality education and lagged behind in global ranking. In 2022, Bangladesh was ranked 116th out of 129 countries in the global innovation index. Tertiary education was ranked only 112th. Collaboration between universities and industries is extremely limited. Challenges remained to improve relevance, market-relevant skills and competitiveness of our higher education as well as to improve skill orientation and competencies and skill sets. In a knowledge economy, universities do not just serve the market; they are also part of the market as well as society. Thus, increased investment in education will be required to reap the benefits of Bangladesh's growing human population and labor supply.
If Bangladesh is to become a developed country by 2041, it must invest in quality education. Education spending is not just a consumption expenditure - it is a crucial national investment. The true value of education extends beyond its ability to increase earnings. Education fosters understanding and builds capabilities that can contribute to a more socially inclusive, economically just, and environmentally sustainable future. We must invest more in education from primary to tertiary education. Poverty remains a key challenge for equitable access to educational opportunities. To promote an inclusive and equitable education system, special attention must be paid to poor and disadvantaged groups. Along with allocation of resources, attention needs to be given to effective and efficient use of resources. The most important factor in improving educational quality is the teachers. Special efforts must be made to build the capacity of teachers at all levels of education, from primary to tertiary as well as creating a learning environment. Along with general education, increased investment in vocational education is required to improve vocational skills, competencies, and aptitudes, as well as to develop opportunities for life-long learning.
Golam Rasul, PhD is Professor, Department of Economics, International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT), Dhaka, Bangladesh.