Khalil Gibran (1833-1931) the Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist wrote `the true wealth of a nation lies not in its gold or silver but in its learning, wisdom and in the uprightness of its sons.’ The saying of Gibran is true for countries like Bangladesh which is poorly endowed with natural resources but can boast of having a very young population. Natural resources deplete and if not used properly can create economic and social crisis for nations in the long term. Most natural resources like oil, gas and coal are non-renewable and once depleted can take million of years for it to replenish itself. The only wealth or asset that never depletes or depreciates is knowledge and wisdom which are embedded in human being. Human being with proper knowledge and wisdom can become invaluable human resource and can take a country to newer heights of development, progress and prosperity. Few decades back underdeveloped countries like Bangladesh cited the size of the population as one of the reason for its economic and social misery and hardship. Now researchers have shown that large population of a country instead of becoming burden can be a boon provided the population can be groomed into becoming valuable and productive asset. For this the country has to have proper education and skill development policies and programmes for its people.
In 1971, the year of birth of Bangladesh, the country had a population of seventy five million. More than 75 per cent lived below the poverty level, and average life expectancy was below forty seven years and the adult literacy rate hovered around 30 per cent. Over the years these social indicators increased dramatically, most even surpassing other countries of the region, including India and Pakistan. The country now has a population of 160 million with an adult literacy rate of 71 percent and life expectancy of 72 years. A major shift has also taken place in the country’s demographic profile. According to the available national and international statistics 48 per cent of the country’s total population is below the age of 24 years, male and female evenly distributed. When most developed and industrialised nations are facing a disturbing future because of the ageing population Bangladesh can exploit the potentials of young population provided the country has a proper policy for transforming this huge young population into human resources providing them with right type of education, skills and technological knowhow. Not only Bangladesh the world needs qualified engineers, doctors, teachers, efficient bureaucrats, nurses, researchers and technicians and Bangladesh can be a good source for all of these. Currently 10 million expatriate workers from Bangladesh remit around 15 billion dollars a year whereas three million Filipinos remit more than 30 billion dollars and more than half of these expatriate workers are women, mostly in service sector. This huge difference in remittance between Bangladesh and the Philippines is just simply due to difference in skill, proper education, knowledge and attitude towards job and employment. In Bangladesh 47 percent of educated or university graduates are unemployed or underemployed, second only to India where this percentage is more than 50 percent. The figure in the Philippines is 20 percent and amongst the Asian countries Pakistan has done better in providing quality and need based education compared to most of its Asian neighbours. Approximately only 10 percent of its educated or university graduates are unemployed. Overall 20 percent of Asia’s unemployed have a high school or university degree.
The current dismal picture of providing proper employment for our educated youths is the cumulative failure of our policy makers, the society’s apathy towards what constitutes a meaningful education and failures of the young people as to what type of education will make them valuable in the job market either at home or elsewhere. For a person with proper education and skill the world could be his work place. Not in many countries one witnesses the rush for admission in universities as we see in Bangladesh. This rush is also mostly to get admission in general subjects rather than in basic sciences. A sizeable number of these admission seekers are running more for a degree or certificate rather than for useful education. One of the most sought after degree is MBA from a Business School. In reality the market for MBA degree holders in Bangladesh is saturated and half of such degree holders are either unemployed or employed in jobs where this degree is absolutely unnecessary. In India the scenario is same. An average technician earns much more than a MBA graduate in most cases. Bangladesh’s youth force for all practical purpose is in a certificate trap, once in is difficult to get out from. To make things worse some unscrupulous people have established certificate producing mills, dishing out certificates for a price, which in the market is not worth the price of the paper it is printed on.
How do can the potential young people of the country be rescued from this trap and give them the opportunity for transforming them into an invaluable human resource and the real wealth of the nation. Awareness building about the pitfalls of degree or certificate oriented education has to be given top priority. The government has established technical and vocational and technical training educational institutions across the country. New science and technology universities both in the public and private sector providing scope of higher education have been established. Two medical universities have also been set up, one in Chittagong and the other one in Rajshahi. Another one in Sylhet has been planned. Bangladesh’s next emerging sector could be textiles, pharmaceutical, IT, food processing, ship building, dairy industry and maritime technology. All these are job oriented disciplines. A specialized maritime public university has already been established. The University Grants Commission has already signed Memorandums with Turkey and Germany to strengthen the textile education sector of the country. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank is financing the development of IT education in the country through the Ministry of Education, Ministry of ICT and the University Grants Commission to cater to the needs of not only Bangladesh but also for other countries as well. Few universities have already built-in capacity for catering to the needs of those who want to pursue higher education in pharmacy, food processing and animal science. One of the remarkable achievements in the higher education sector is the successful implementation of the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) of the University Grants Commission. This was a big project jointly funded by the Government of Bangladesh and the World Bank. Under this project some universities have managed to build state of the art science laboratories and model learning centres for the student and the researchers. About 31 universities have been connected through fiber optics cable so that researchers can establish virtual personal contact with their colleagues within and outside the country. All of these facilities will either be wasted or underutilised if young learners cannot be attracted to these facilities.
According to the prediction made by the UK based multinational professional service provider and the largest of its kind in the world Pricewater House Coopers (PwC) Bangladesh has the potential to become one of the world’s largest economies by 2050, overtaking countries such as Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Thailand, South Africa and Malaysia and by 2030 it would be the 28th largest economy, up from 31st in 2016. But this to happen the Bangladesh must transform its most precious source of wealth, its population from mere human being to human resources giving them the necessary, need based education, skill and knowledge. It has to convince its young population to transform to being global citizens it has to stop chasing certificate centric education and groom themselves into persons with knowledge, wisdom, skill and knowhow. To make this possible the government has to play the role of catalyst, commit enough resources and prepare the nation to face the future challenges. After four and half decades of independent Bangladesh it is now time that we make a leap forward and prepare for the enviable future that awaits us. Let us not blame our underdevelopment to our population; it has the potential to become an important catalyst of change.
The writer is the Chairman of University Grants Commission, Bangladesh