The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors today approved a $191 million credit to Bangladesh and a $18 million grant to Afghanistan to help the countries strengthen the higher education sector and respond better to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Higher Education Acceleration Transformation Project—the first World Bank-supported regional education project in South Asia—will support regional collaboration in the higher education sector, including student mobility through equivalence programs, credit transfer schemes, and university twinning arrangements within the region. It will also help more women access quality higher education, which will result in increased female labor force participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard the higher education sector in South Asia, causing more dropouts and fewer enrolments. Female students are likely to be disproportionately impacted, further exacerbating the existing gender gap in higher education. The project will support pandemic and emergency response and build systemic resilience in the higher education sector with a specific focus on digitization.
“For our collective future, higher education is a necessity, not a choice. As Bangladesh aspires to achieve upper middle-income status, the country needs to invest in its youth to create a skilled and globally competitive workforce” said Mercy Tembon, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan. “This financing will help Bangladesh strengthen quality and relevance of tertiary education particularly for women, as well as ensure business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It will establish a South Asian Higher Education Portal, hosted in Bangladesh, to facilitate the ‘virtual mobility’ of students, by allowing students from the registered universities to take courses for credit outside their home country. In addition to Bangladesh and Afghanistan, students from other South Asian countries will be able to access the portal. It will also strengthen regional cooperation among the National Research and Education networks (NRENs) and provide expanded access and connectivity for students. The project will upgrade the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN) and will offer a subsidized connectivity package to students and the participating universities in BdREN.
South Asia region has the second-lowest female labor force participation rate globally. To enable more women to access quality higher education, get better jobs, and become leaders, the project will build a network of women’s universities and institutions, which will be initially anchored on the Asian University of Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
In Afghanistan, the higher education sector is growing rapidly. However, only 30 percent of the students at the tertiary level are women. “The regional project will prepare the students, particularly the female students for working in leadership and decision-making positions,” said Henry Kerali, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan.
“The project will help meet the increasing demand for quality higher education in South Asia. Further, it will also help South Asian countries benefit from regional cooperation in higher education and strengthen research and innovations capacities in the universities” said Mokhlesur Rahman, World Bank Task Team Leader of the project.
The credit is from the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), and has a 30-year term, including a five-year grace period. Bangladesh currently has the largest ongoing IDA program totaling over $14 billion.