The country?s higher education has always been in the media not because of lack of access to higher education but for lack of acceptable quality. When Bangladesh became an independent nation back in 1971 the country had only six public universities and about three hundred colleges, both in the Higher Secondary sector and tertiary sector. Out of the six universities, two were specialized, i.e., Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh and BUET. All these public universities had a capacity to teach about 35 thousand students and the tertiary level colleges could accommodate not more than 40 thousands, both in the Higher Secondary level and degree level. Over the years the demand for education in general and tertiary level education has increased in geometric proportion with the increase in the country?s population. Currently three million students study in 120 public and private universities including the degree colleges and the number is on constant rise. The demand keeps on chasing the availability of higher education and this will continue to remain so for many more years in the future. Recently the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) of the renowned weekly ?Economist? did a survey on the future of university level education in South Asia and proposed that this rise in the demand of higher education may not be met with the brick and mortar type universities and recommended that many countries of the South Asia, including Bangladesh will have to find alternative to meet the demand. According to the EIU one such alternative could be introduction of online degree programmes in Bangladesh. They commented that taking the size of the area of Bangladesh it may not be possible to establish traditional universities in this country. But in reality Bangladesh may not be ready for such online programmes in near future because of lack of logistic support and making the programme effective and checking the fraudulent practices that easily corrupts the system. Very recently in Pakistan there was a crackdown on such online degree granting institutions and only in one city, Karachi, a online degree selling mill was shut down allegedly for dishing out degrees of dozens of phantom universities from around the world for money. Similar incidents were also reported from India and Bangladesh not be left behind has quite a few of such online degree selling ?universities?. These ?degrees? are very popular amongst government employees as they can use these for their professional gains, including promotion and better posting.
Awami League (AL) governments have always been viewed as education-friendly. It has created a record by distributing 30 million school text books on the first day of year to school children. During the tenure of all AL led government the number of educational institutions across the country has increased manifold. It was the first government of AL under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sk. Mujib that the primary school teachers were declared as government employees and over the years 100% salary of non-government educational institutions are paid from the government exchequer, excluding the medical and other allowances. In 1971 the country?s literacy rate was around 25% which has risen to about 70% as of now. This is a major success story of Bangladesh. As mentioned earlier, the entry into the tertiary level education, including those studying in both public and private universities have risen manifold. This can be termed as quantum leap and is enviable development for many countries in the region.
Though the number of students studying in the tertiary level have increased manifold the problem now facing the country is ensuring the dispensing of quality education. This is true both for public and private sector. A good university or college cannot be conceived without quality teachers who not only excels in good teaching but also devotes his or her time in research. In Bangladesh the meritorious students are no longer attracted to enter teaching profession. They perceive that the teachers contribution to nation building is hardly recognized and the pay and other benefits that one would receive from this profession falls far short of what they would get in the private sector. This perception may not be discounted. For long the university teachers have been demanding a separate pay scale which is prevalent in many other sectors, both in public and private. Their equivalent in the public sector, besides their salary is often endowed with many other non-monetary benefits. What a university teacher receives as pay and other benefits is one of the lowest in the world. There has often been talk from responsible policy makers in the government that a separate pay scale for teachers is on the anvil but the recent announcement of the proposed pay scale by the government has not satisfied the university teachers. Already teachers? organizations of different universities have ventilated their discontent over the announcement and tried to draw attention of the government to re-think about the proposed pay scale, especially the part that would affect their salary and other benefits. Expenses made for the delivery of education is always viewed as investment in human resource development and no other investment is more rewarding than investment in this sector. The example of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and India are examples of how the development of human resources can change the face of a country in all sectors. The emergence of India as an economic superpower was possible due to its endeavour in developing its human resources since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Only attracting qualified teachers may not improve the quality of education. Their must be a continuous effort to develop those recruited through regular training and development programmes. Currently there is a programme funded by the World Bank, titled Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) to do this. The fund is dedicated for the enhancement of the quality education in the tertiary level both in public and private sector. It is expected that the project will prove to be effective by the end of its tenure in 2018. The project not only is involved in the enhancement of improving the quality of learning and teaching and encouraging researchers but also has funds for the development of the infrastructural facilities in the participating institutions.
The enhancement of quality education must be viewed holistically and not just at the tertiary level. If Bangladesh expects to become a middle income country by 2021 there is no alternative to improve the quality of education at all levels from primary to tertiary. No resource is more valuable than human resource. The country has a growing young age population and they will create more demand for higher education. If we want to reap good dividend out of this young age population the top priority should be transforming these young people into quality human resources. Bangladesh has brought about a revolution in agriculture, now it is time to bring about a revolution in developing our human resources. Bangladesh does not have crisis in the education sector, it has certain problems and these can be rectified with little bit of effort and putting it on top of the priority list.
The author is an analyst and commentator.