Lessons Learned | Unpacking 50 years of the Bangladesh education sector

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Bangladesh- a land won through blood and sweat, and sheer determination. On the 14th of December, 1971, also known as Martyred Intellectuals Day, hundreds of intellectuals of the country were brutally murdered to make sure that the country was crippled for years to come. Almost 50 years later, the net enrollment rate in primary education has reached 95.5% in 2020. This millennium has also seen a jump in the adult literacy rate from 46% in 2001 to a whopping 73% in 2018. Even rural literacy among adults stands at 67.3% for both genders. Bangladesh’s road to success may have been paved with hurdles, but the country has crossed each one with grace and made laudable success in sectors such as primary school enrollment, especially for the female population and tertiary education.

Education in Bangladesh is overseen by the Ministry of Education, currently headed by Dr. Dipu Moni, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh. A branch of the above, Ministry of Primary and Mass Education takes charge of primary education in the country and maintains that all children receive state funded and compulsory primary and secondary education, thus keeping true to Article 17 of its constitution and education related international declarations such as the UN’s Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

In 1971, the overall literacy rate stood at a mere 17.6%. In 2020, it was 74.7%. How did a small country like Bangladesh, riddled with political crises and economic and climatic turbulence win this war against illiteracy in a little less than 50 years? Multiple factors helped push the country forward with its goals of poverty eradication, of which eliminating illiteracy was a big part. Bangladesh had about 50% of its population within working age in 1975. In order to leverage this strength and root out poverty, Bangladesh needed to educate its youth population. And so, it set the wheels in motion right after independence. The results were bright and shining- by 1981, Bangladesh had pulled up its adult literacy rate to 29.2%. Once here, the country never looked back.

A key contributor to this successful rise in the adult (and later primary and secondary) literacy rate is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), an NGO formed primarily to resettle war refugees into the country. The NGO has been central to the Bangladesh Government’s Education for All (EFA) initiative by setting in motion an educational campaign in 1985, targeting gender inequality at school level and ensuring education for the needy, unemployed, minority and other disadvantaged groups of people. For instance, floating schools were one initiative taken by BRAC in order to provide learning opportunities to vulnerable people in remote areas. Most recently, BRAC’s education program (BEP) has seen about 14 million children graduate from its schools and has had its learning models replicated by governments around the world. The country’s largest non-formal approach to primary education and various formal programs for overall education through BRAC has managed to tilt the gender parity balance on the side of women, with currently around 55% of its students being females. Largely thanks to BRAC, Bangladesh is on track with 5 out of 8 Millennium Development Goals, out of which two- primary school enrollment and gender parity in primary education- are directly related to education. Figures report that in 2014, the pass rate for primary school examinations out of almost 50,000 students was an outstanding 99.9% and almost 61.7% of these students were female.

Primary education in Bangladesh gathered much speed after the enactment of the Compulsory Primary Education Law of 1990. Measures such as satellite schools, community-based education and Food for Education were carried out across the country. The Female Secondary School Assistance Program (FSSAP) which was initiated in 1994 by the Government of Bangladesh, with support from development partners like the Asian Development Bank, has also superbly achieved its goal of increasing secondary school enrollment for females and discouraging child or early marriages. The program is essentially a conditional cash transfer agreement- if a girl enrolls in secondary education, maintains attendance records at 75% or more, achieves a certain academic score (45% or more in class tests) and remains unmarried until the end of her secondary school certificate examination, a certain stipend is transferred to her. The program also had an ulterior motive- eradicating gender disparity in education. In 1991, the adult literacy rate for females was only at 26% versus 44% in men. The program had a striking range of positive outcomes both in short and long run, and not just directly impacting education but a host of other areas of concern in Bangladesh. In the short run, the program not only encouraged females to join secondary school but also males, through the sibling spillover benefits. In the long run, it managed to reduce the gender disparity in school enrollment by a stunning number- in 1998, male enrollment was at 43% while the female enrollment rate had shot up to 41%! The figure as of 2018 stands at 61% for males and 72% for women. It ended up delaying marriages, increased employment opportunities for women, and even, increasing female child preference. ”Bangladesh has gained global recognition for its continuing focus on girls’ education resulting in “gender parity” at primary and secondary levels. Since the take over by “elected” government in the early 90s with female heads of the ruling party and their “positive discrimination policy” in favour of girls with stipends, fee waivers and free textbooks for all, Bangladesh has managed to get more girls and also more female teachers in education institutions.” – Rasheda K Choudhury- Executive Director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), Member Secretary, Education Watch and Former Adviser, Caretaker Government of Bangladesh in 2008.” A survey showed benefits of the stipend program outweigh the costs by 200%. It has proved to be a “win-win” for individual families and the society at large.

Ongoing government projects to encourage the education of children in Bangladesh comprise compulsory primary education for all, free education for girls up to grade 10, stipends for female students, a nationwide integrated education system and a food for education program. The efforts have paid off and Bangladesh’s education system has paced ahead in leaps and bounds. As of now, national curriculum books from class 5 to class 12 are handed out free of charge among students and schools.

After the first decade post war, adult literacy rate for Bangladesh was a steady climb with few hiccups along the way. The years 2007 and 2012 saw minor falls but then the graph gained momentum fast. Although the rate of increase has declined sharply from the year 2016, it nevertheless continues to rise. A critical element for the success of adult literacy rates, both rural and urban, has been the rise of tertiary and nonformal education in the country. At the time of independence, Bangladesh had only 6 universities. The country now boasts 44 government, 101 private and 3 international universities, as per the most recent data. Students have a choice in pursuing their desired professions such as chartered accountancy, engineering, technology, agriculture and medicine, at institutions of their choice.

Non Formal education, driven largely by the government to eradicate illiteracy post-independence, was a 5-year step by step program. Besides NGO based community learning centres and clubs, it includes vocational and technical institutes that the government of this country has put special emphasis on ever since its new National Education Policy 2010. Bangladesh has always had a robust youth population (between 10-24 years) and the country knew how critical it was to their overall goals, to turn these children into the human capital for the future. Bangladesh’s answer to this was vocational and training institutes. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, upwards of 200,000 children are enrolled in vocational SSC at almost 3000 general schools and more than 10,00,000 were enrolled in 16 different types of technical and vocational institutes in 2018. Currently Bangladesh has a youth population of about 30%. In order for the country to be able to convert all that into human capital, they must invest in alternative forms of education in order to build specific skill sets across all industries of the country. In order to do so, the government is planning to introduce vocational SSC at 640 more madrasas and schools, by funding them and providing them human resources if they willingly come forward to accept this alternative form of education. While vocational training for the engineering, agricultural and medical sectors are already in place, there is room for still more, in sectors such as garments, IT and teaching sectors. Bangladesh also needs to raise the acceptability of vocational degrees in universities and devise alternative vocational skills-based curriculum for universities which are already offering quality formal education.

The vocational training structure is new and like everything new, would take time to settle into itself. Although all non formal education activities were carried out to the T in 2019, with the government already having enrolled 2.3 million adults in 134 sub-districts and planning to enroll another 2.1 million in 116 more sub districts, COVID–19 has presented itself as a big threat, bringing halts and pauses to the education system as a whole. The government has already implemented programs to educate 5 million adults through learning centres across the country, the basic literacy program aimed to educate 4.5 million adults between 15 and 45 years and another 1 million former dropouts throughout the country, by Mujib year 2020. However, ever since March 2020, educational institutions have remained closed. For over a year and a half, institutions have coped through online education where they could but rural institutions have not been able to take advantage of online teaching structures due to a lack of resources. While the country struggles to hold on to its economy, and the working population to their jobs, experts fear that education would topple down the students’ list of priorities post pandemic, slowing down the literacy rate.

Joint effort from the government, community initiatives and involvement of NGOs has collectively made commendable success possible. More progress will be made if the country can resolve issues such as escalating education programs in some areas, battling corruption in the sector, ensuring quality and equality and eliminating discrimination across all levels of education. The above is especially important for tertiary education as universities grapple with issues such as lack of seats and lack of research and facilities for existing students. Tertiary education has the biggest role to play if the country wants to produce the best human resource that will pull the country out of poverty and it is therefore crucial that emphasis be given to capacity building in universities, maybe through collaboration with universities of developed countries.

COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge and has been so for many countries around the world, not only Bangladesh. If the country can hold onto its current rate of progress or be able to mitigate the damage done due to this pandemic in the post pandemic era, it is projected that illiteracy in the country will fall below 10% by 2050, ensuring a much brighter future for all its citizens.

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