Bangladesh, a country known for natural calamity, poverty, illiteracy, corruption, political instability and military takeovers, was perceived as a country with murky past and a hopeless future. Immediately after the liberation of the country many internationally renowned economists saw no future of the war devastated country and commented that if this country survives any country will survive. Over the last four decades the country has not only survived but has also become the role model of development for the rest of the developing world. At birth the country could not feed 75 million people. On an average it had to import one-third of the food it consumed. Currently the country not only can feed its 160 million people but is also able to produce surplus rice and is the fourth largest rice growing country in the world. This entire miracle has happened because of the resilience of the people, the hard working class and a group of new generation entrepreneurs. According to the international think tank PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Bangladesh can potentially become the world’s 28th largest economy by 2030 and 23rd by 2050, up from 31st in 2016, leaving behind Australia, Spain, South Africa and Malaysia. Over the last one decade the country has maintained an overall growth rate of 6% plus and according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics the current year will see a GDP growth rate of 7.24% though the World Bank as usual put a conservative future of 6.8%. Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank, whose revised estimates of 7.1% growth for 2015-16 were quite close to the actual figure-estimates a 6.9% pace for the current fiscal year. The per capita income has risen to $1602. On the PPP basis, PwC predicted that the economic output of Bangladesh could grow from $628 billion in 2016 to $1.3 trillion in 2030 and to $3.1 trillion in 2050. PwC also predicts if Bangladesh can maintain the current growth rate, it will be amongst the top 3 fastest growing economies globally through 2050.
Next to all these rosy pictures Bangladesh’s 47% per cent graduates are unemployed most of whom went just for university certificates, not for market or skill driven education. The irony is when Bangladeshi ‘educated’ is staggering for a job there are at least six hundred thousand foreigners working in Bangladesh, most of them illegally without any work permit draining out of the country around $5 billion yearly.
To achieve the targets of 2030 or 2050 the priority must be given to turning the huge young population to human resources and to do this the investment in building human capital, especially in education, must be rapidly but realistically increased. Mere allocation of a big budget will not serve any purpose; it has to be allocated to build the right type of human capital the country and world need. A skilled person is like an international debit card usable anywhere. He can find an employment in any part of the world provided he has the right type of skill the job market needs.
The country needs good teachers, researchers, doctors, engineers, architects, pharmacists, agricultural scientists but at the same time needs hospital technicians, trained nurses, mechanics, IT specialists, fashion designers, persons with good managerial capabilities with good communication and analytical skills capable of doing a good presentation. For these to happen more budget allocation is needed in higher education, the project related international assistance needs to be properly utilised, the unnecessary bureaucracy in the higher education sector trimmed substantially.
In the current fiscal year (2016-17) the budget allocation stood at 15.6% of the total budget which was 2.7% of GDP. Though UNESCO proposes the allocation for education should be at least 7% of GDP and some armchair researchers are quick to point out that countries like Maldives allocate 8% and Sri Lanka 6.3%; why should not Bangladesh be able to do this? The simple answer is that every country has its own priority and has to allocate its resources accordingly. Maldives or Sri Lanka does not have to allocate practically any money for agriculture or development of infrastructure. Their public utility needs are not as high as Bangladesh. None of these countries are building Padma Bridge from its own resources; neither is it building new power plants or new seaports or extending its highway system. They do not have to feed 160 million people; they can have more money from their budget for education. The other side of the coin is that hundreds of students from these countries are studying in Bangladesh and the number keeps on growing, but the fact is the country’s education, especially the higher education sector needs more budget allocation. In the Dakar Declaration (2000) the government committed to allocated at least 6% of GDP. The Ministry of Education and the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh has produced a document titled ‘Strategic Plan for Higher Education in Bangladesh: 2017-2030.’ Strangely, some of the left leaning student organisations and civil society members are not in favour of such a strategic plan as part of the money needed for funding the preparation of this plan was borrowed by the government from the World Bank. They would rather go for an ad-hoc plan which usually will lead the higher education to a dark alley. Critics of such plans unfortunately cannot foresee the future. In Bangladesh there are lots of projects underway which are not only funded by the World Bank but also by other international agencies and assistance partners like ADB, IMF, JICA, GTZ, DFID. The World Bank learnt a costly mistake by withdrawing their funding from Padma Bridge without any tenable reason but indirectly did a service to Bangladesh by installing a confidence in us that we are now capable of funding mega projects from our own resources. This will mean that in near future, many of such mega projects can be funded similarly like Padma Bridge. Until then the country will need assistance from development partners. Another good thing is that Bangladesh has been able to move away from asking for aid from donor countries. It can fund projects from its own resources or, if needed, can borrow money from international agencies on soft terms.
The Higher Education Strategic Plan (2017-2030) amongst other issues have incorporated in its objectives (a) to help the unhindered practice of intellectual exercise and growth of free thinking; (b) to relate the realities of the country with higher education in all conceivable areas; (c) the effectively introduce students to knowledge of modern fast growing world; (d) in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2016-2030 of the UN, ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; (e) in the context of the education goals of the 7th Five Year Plan (2016-2021) ensure gender parity in higher education and (f) to integrate in higher education the curricula of such specialised subjects as ‒ and cutting edge research in ‒ artificial intelligence, robotics, DNA engineering, nanotechnology, biotechnology, alternative/renewable energy. The achievement of these objectives, among others, is expected to fundamentally change human societies in the coming years. The plan expects the share of GDP for the education sector to be 3% by 2021 and 6% by 2030. The plan also proposed to establish a university specialising only in research. The good thing about the Strategic Plan document is that six committees contributed in its preparation, the members were mostly educationist, few from the employers and other stake holders and before finalisation of the document it was presented before randomly selected group of students and their parents and their suggestion incorporated.
Needless to say all the money spent in the public universities is public money and on an average Taka 130,000 is the annual recurring expense behind each student, all subsidised. The highest amount of subsidy goes to each student of Bangladesh Agriculture University (231,795) followed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University (233,571). The Development Budget for universities in the next fiscal year is estimated to be 3,700 crore taka for the 42 public universities. Since 2009 the University Grants Commission is implementing the much admired Higher Education Training Project (HEQEP) which is funded jointly by the Government of Bangladesh and the World Bank. The project will come to close by December of 2018 and judging by the successful implementation of the project there is proposal of having a similar project whose value will be $0.50 billion. Under the ongoing project most of the universities now have some state of the art laboratories with cutting edge technology installed. Soon ADB is expected to fund along with the GoB, IT related projects worth approximately $560 million. All these funds are earmarked for enhancing the quality and capability of our higher education, to bring it at par with international standards.
It is expected that the University Grants Commission will be the implementing agency on behalf of the government and for all practical purpose the Commission’s mandated structure needs to be changed. UGC was set up 1973 by the Bangabandhu Government when the country had only six universities with 12,000 students. Today the country has 42 public and 95 private universities under its umbrella where 3.2 million students study and still runs with the same authority but with multiplied responsibility. For the last one decade it has been felt the current Commission needs to be transformed into Higher Education Commission (HEC). The Prime Minister and the Education Minister on a number of occasions have announced that the proposed Commission will soon see the light of the day but the draft document is still gathering dust on someone’s desk within the four walls of the secretariat.
Once everything is put in its place, right people are entrusted with achieving the development goals of the country and less of unnecessary interference is stopped from different quarters the rise of the new Asian Tiger – Bangladesh is a reality. The Phoenix has risen, remove the obstacles and let it fly.
The writer is an analyst and commentator