In the 2016 budget, the Bangladesh government made the highest ever allocation to the education and science sector. The education sector secured 14.4 percent of the annual budget and 2.4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but still fell short of the 20 percent of annual budget and 6 percent of GDP benchmark recommended by UNICEF.
Allocation for higher education was less than 1 percent when at least 5 percent is required to be internationally competitive. The Research and Development budget in 2016 was less than 0.4 percent, of which up to 80 percent could be used to cover salaries and institutional overhead costs. However, the budget movement is certainly in the right direction. In the recent past, there have been encouraging indications from some policymakers and economic commentators about the importance and need for skills development and innovation for Bangladesh's socioeconomic development. The 2017 budget is also expected to be much bigger than the last one. Can we then also expect a much needed boost for higher education and science and technology?
The ambitious economic targets of transitioning to a middle income country by 2021 and an advanced economy by 2041 are only attainable by shifting from relying on cheap labour to knowledge-based economic growth. Bangladesh has been extremely successful in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Sustained GDP growth of 6-7 percent over a substantial period has earned Bangladesh the status of a lower-middle income country, much of it on the back of agricultural, RMG and expatriate workers. Transition to the next stages will now depend on the attainment of goals that require skilled workers and research capacity.
Goldman Sachs picked Bangladesh as one of eleven developing countries with massive economic potentials. Rather than becoming complacent, we should try to take up this challenge and adopt and implement measures in order to realise this potential. For a resource poor country with a large and young workforce, knowledge-based economic growth should be the way to go. Infrastructural improvements and tweaking of economic instruments may help marginally increase the rate of growth, but sustaining high GDP growth requires rectifying the serious shortfalls in higher education and science budgets.
It is the generation and utilisation of new knowledge and intellectual capital that creates national wealth required for socioeconomic prosperity. Instead of comparing ourselves to other LDCs, we should examine strategies being pursued by the ten potential economic powerhouses in the developing world with respect to budgetary allocations.
A country that we, and particularly our policymakers, can learn a lot from is South Korea - which shares with us the history of experiencing a devastating war. In 1970, the standard of living and economic status of war-ravaged South Korea was the same as that of erstwhile East Pakistan.
In 2012, however, the UN officially declared South Korea an advanced economy (ahead of China and India), while we struggled. South Korea's economic transformation didn't happen by chance. There was a national consensus to become an advanced economy within a set time. Strategies were adopted to achieve this goal. South Korea spent around 8 percent of its GDP on education and post-graduate research and a further 2 percent on R&D in areas of national priority. The focus has been on skills development, PhD and postdoctoral research and government-industry-university partnerships (initially in the automotive and electronic sectors) aided by the highest per capita generation and utilisation of patents. Now the results are there for all to see.
Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers have driven the research engine for sustained economic growth in developed and rapidly advancing countries (such as China, India and Brazil). Many of these young researchers originate from economically disadvantaged countries like Bangladesh that also suffer from acute shortage of trained manpower. But after failing to find suitable career opportunities in their own countries, they move to advanced countries and help create wealth there. This devastating brain drain needs to be stemmed and reversed by creating working conditions and research cultures that allow our brightest minds to carry out world class research on the most relevant topics.
We need to focus on research of highest national priority and adequately fund and coordinate it. Research results should translate into products and services through IP generation and technology transfers to industry.
The above issues were discussed at length at a day-long workshop on “Harnessing higher education, research and innovation for sustainable development of Bangladesh” held at Dhaka University on April 22. Active researchers from academia, research institutions and the pharmaceutical industry frankly exchanged views with senior policymakers, including the S&T Minister, a senior member of UGC, VC and Deans of Dhaka University, and other important high-level stakeholders. The discussion centred on strategies to bring about qualitative changes in the higher education and research sectors for socioeconomic development and national wealth creation. Senior policymakers gave patient hearing to the scientists and academics who actively participated in the discussions.
The fundamental changes in higher education and research needed to make Bangladesh internationally competitive requires substantial additional funding and coordination. This in turn will set in motion the “multiplier” and “knock-on” effects that can boost sustained economic growth to levels that are required to transition to an advanced economy. Hence, the biggest investment needed for Bangladesh's future is in education, research and innovation. Is this too much to ask from the government?
The writer is a retired Professor of Medical Biotechnology and Director of Research at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and former Chief Research Scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, Melbourne, Australia).