Ensuring quality and equitable education

Ensuring quality and equitable education

After an exciting and exhilarating performances in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), that was widely acclaimed across the globe,  Bangladesh embarked on embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , also called 2030 Global Development Agenda. The start of the SDGs coincided with our national plan and the country has already incorporated some of the goals and indicators of SDGs in its 7th Five Year Plan. In a sense, meeting the targets of SDGs would be a big leap forward not only for Bangladesh but for the world at large in ending poverty and hunger, illiteracy and pollution without compromising the interests of the future generations. But all said is not all done. True, the SDGs received full political commitment from the government and despite resource constraints the country is moving forward with its biggest ever developmental agenda.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) includes, inter alia, inclusive and equitable quality education. It aims at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all (SDG 4). It has to be so as resource-constrained countries of South East Asia could make a head start with due emphasis on equity and quality aspects of education. The backbone of Bangladesh is said to be education where some progress could be in evidence in quantitative terms but not in quality aspects. It is not surprising perhaps that although the unemployment rate hovers around 5.0 per cent, the rate among educated youth ranges between 30-35 per cent indicating that the system fails to fuel growth. Besides, the share of education budget in GDP is alleged to have gone down over time and this needs due attention if SDG targets are to be met.

However, two years down the road since SDGs implementation started by the government, the General Economics Division (GED) of the Ministry of Planning scanned through some of the targets and their achievements and failures. The purpose was to conform to the contract stipulated where a review is required and second, to get feedback on the ongoing efforts. Drawing heavily upon that document called "Sustainable Development Goals: Bangladesh First Progress Report 2018", we shall try to capture the progress on SDG 4 that relates to education,

The world-wide perspective is that, despite praiseworthy progress in primary school enrolment between 2000 and 2014, roughly one-tenth of children of primary school age were out of school in 2014. Proficiency in reading depicts marked disparity between children of the richest 20 and those from poorest 20 per cent of households as well as between urban and rural areas. By and large, inclusiveness, quality and equity still seem to be a pipe dream.

As far as inclusive and equitable education in Bangladesh is concerned, there are about 4.0 million children out of school throughout the country with specific groups such as children of remote areas, indigenous children, and disabled children bearing most of the brunt of backwardness. While the enrolment rate is appreciably high at primary level, a large proportion of them cannot make transition to secondary schools (11-15 years). There is also disparity in various forms in secondary level such as gender, rural-urban and economic status. For example, the enrolment in secondary level from poor households is about 77 per cent compared to about 87 per cent from non-poor households. Interestingly, poor children of rural areas exceed enrolment against those in urban areas indicating that urban households are worse off in sending children to schools. Further to the frustrations, a large proportion of students cannot graduate from secondary schools to the upper echelon. The most disconcerting development is in tertiary education where all dimensions of disparity persist pervasively.

While in MDGs major emphasis was placed on the quantitative aspect of primary education like enrolment, SDGs kicked off with a major concern on quality aspect in primary level which spills over to successive levels of education. Empirics show that a significant proportion of primary children cannot achieve minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics resulting in significant dropout rates. "The proportion of grade 9 students who mastered grade 8 level competencies in Bangla, English, and Mathematics are respectively 44,44 and 35 per cent." The quality question faces serious constraints such as shortage of trained teachers especially in science, mathematics, English and computer science, lack of upgraded syllabus, shortage of teaching materials, lack of teaching standards etc.  The decline is further accounted for by the politicised poor management of schools.

The quality and relevance of higher education and training  in Bangladesh do not seem to meet the demand of the labor market due to outdated curricula, lack of modem lab facilities and equipment, limited opportunities for teachers' professional development, lack of a connection between industries and universities and other institutions to bridge the mismatch between demand and supply of required manpower. Gender parity index (GPI) exceeded 1.0 at primary and secondary levels of education and remained at that level for more than a decade. But things do not appear that rosy at tertiary levels of education.  

Quality and relevance of tertiary education are at odds. Politicisation of tertiary education management, without adherence to merit, needs immediate reversal. Still there is time when things can be improved through infrastructural development at universities; establishing more public universities focusing on science and technology; updated curricula to provide knowledge, skills and relevant competencies; restructuring University Grants Commission (UGC) to ensure accountability and transparency in the higher education sector; establishing effective institutions-industry linkages through partnership in research and development; implementing quality assurance mechanism; developing promotion system based on comprehensive performance assessment etc.

The new government is expected to be rough and tough rather than populist in ensuring equitable quality education. That may even need uniform education for all - a pseudo revolutionary step from an elected government. 

Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.

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