Are we scrimping on education?

Thursday, January 11th, 2018


The Awami League-led government that has over 10 years tried to reshape the country in its own image, has throughout maintained how it is committed to education as the most potent tool for unlocking a nation’s potential. With some early achievements, most notably in the areas of access and gender parity, it even managed to win over quite a few believers, which now were being drawn increasingly from both sexes, or quietly impressed by Nurul Islam Nahid’s commitment to the job Sheikh Hasina had entrusted to him.


Somewhere along the way, something obviously was lost, and never recovered. That means a report card that would’ve looked highly encouraging at the 5-year mark, now looks decidedly average, almost drab, after a decade. It is telling that the free textbooks that students now receive early enough to be a New Year’s present is still celebrated with the same vigour that marked its first instance. Indeed, even the government’s telling of the ministry’s major achievements would struggle, and most probably fail, to include anything that could be said to have been post-2013.


The one statistic that most succinctly captures the government wavering from its commitment to education, and ultimately capitulating to a state of policy paralysis in the second half of those ten years, is the one tracking education’s share as a percentage of the annual budget. For almost every developing country worth its salt, the trajectory here curves upwards. In Bangladesh, over the course of the two AL-led administrations, it has witnessed a steep and consistent decline, from 16 percent in 2007 (which was still short of the recommended 20 percent) to below 12 percent in 2016. And the forecast trend through the next couple of fiscals is not encouraging.


Now it is well-known that with Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith, the watchword around the national budget each year has been ‘ambition’ for this AL government, and although it has fallen short every year of the finance minister’s own original projections, there is no doubt it has burgeoned considerably over the course of the ten years. Indeed it has more than quadrupled. It is the education sector that has failed to keep pace, seeing its allotment steadily decline in proportion. The lack of any new initiatives demanding attention in the budget is borne out by the decline. Nahid has the reputation of an honest politician (notwithstanding his throwaway remark on ‘tolerable bribe’ to his ministry’s officials last December), who is not in politics or power for money. But that does not mean he shouldn’t scrap for every penny he can get for his ministry from the national exchequer.


On another measure, spending on education as a percentage of GDP, in recent years if you round it off you just about get to 2 percent. You will not realize how wretched that is without comparing it with other countries. Let’s try our Saarc neighbours first. Afghanistan: 4.6 percent, Bhutan: 5.6 percent, Nepal: 4.1 percent, India: 3.9 percent, and Pakistan: 2.5 percent. It is worthwhile to state the numbers, if only to deliver a message that this is unacceptable. Sri Lanka are hovering close to us these days, but there is a very, very good reason for that: they long ago achieved near universal literacy. While on their way to achieving that, the islanders consistently topped 3 percent of GDP with their education spending.


As the AL-led regime rolled on, it became increasingly noticeable how the education minister started becoming increasingly conservative, almost hesitant in his approach. Following an early snub by the finance minister, he had long ago become averse to asking for more money for his ministry than was strictly necessary, and remained so till the end. This may have underlined the man’s dignity, but it brought no good result in the end, for the objective of education to empower the people. It could just be that he had reached the limits of his ability. His helplessness in the face of the rampant question paper leak phenomenon, that has plumbed new lows in the last two years, also seemed to weigh heavily on him. Now nearing the end of his tenure, the education sector he leaves behind is bereft of new ideas, and desperate for new blood.

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