If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys
The old cliche used in the title has many opponents; not too many people are convinced that money is the only factor to get skilled or efficient workers. Peanuts, in this context, is slang for low wages, and monkeys imply stupidity, and by extension, unskilled workers. A seminal essay published by the Economic Policy in 2011, however, upheld the phrase to suggest that when it comes to education, there is a significant link between teachers' pay and pupils' performance.
The authors of the article, Dr Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez, begin with a simple question: "Why are teachers paid up to four times as much in some countries compared to others, and does it matter?" They observe that some of the best-performing education systems, such as in Finland and South Korea, recruit their teachers from the top third of their graduate cohort. Using aggregated data from 39 OECD countries over 10 years, the study argues that the relative wage in teaching determines the ability, and hence the quality of teachers the country gets. "If teachers are paid in the top 20 percent of the earnings distribution of a country, then one would expect that this profession would attract some of the most able graduates in the country. Likewise, if teaching is really poorly paid in relative terms, then one would expect that only the less able would end up in the job." The study shows that a 15 percent increase in teachers' pay would give rise to around a 6-8 percent increase in pupils' performance.
But there is a catch. This increase is not necessarily for the existing stock of teachers. An automatic pay increase will not necessarily turn the current teachers into better teachers. There should be additional incentives for them to undertake continuous professional development and in-service training to measure up to the higher pay. It would take 30-40 years to complete the cycle to replace the existing stock with better recruits. The article contends that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
With so much talk on education as the next "megaproject" of the government, reiterated by the education minister in a post-budget briefing, I think policymakers should focus on quality teachers at all levels of education in Bangladesh – primary, secondary and tertiary. However, the moment the term "megaproject" is used, a mega concern bursts into the scene. We get worried by the trajectory of the ongoing "development" practice that focuses on bricks and mortars, land acquisition, overseas consultancy, bureaucrats, and middlemen. Let us, therefore, be wary of the monkey business in identifying the elephant in the room: we need the right people for the right job. We need to make the right investment to get the right teachers for the right education. The same rule perhaps applies to other professional groups. It is not healthy to have a cadre officer with a background in humanities call the shots in the health ministry, for example.
With limited resources available to Bangladesh's education sector in the proposed budget, it is even more pertinent that we strategise. The proposed Tk 81,449 crore education budget is 12 percent of the total budget. Its share in the GDP is 1.83 percent, significantly lower than the prescribed six percent. Already, the budget has been criticised for not paying the necessary focus on Covid-19 recovery and for its attempt to camouflage the information technology budget under its purview to look good on paper.
The proposal to increase teachers' pay for quality education is, therefore, going to be an anathema to the policymakers. As an English teacher, who has been involved in public and private universities, I can reflect on my field to defend my position.
I was intrigued by a newspaper article by Prof Obaidul Hamid of the University of Queensland, who referred to the recently published English Proficiency Index to tell us, "Bangladesh was placed in the low proficiency category and was ranked 65th, ahead of Vietnam (66th) and behind Nepal (62nd), Ethiopia (63rd) and Pakistan (63rd). Lebanon (34th), China (49th) and Iran (58th) were ahead of Bangladesh, in the moderate proficiency group. Except for Singapore (4th) and South Africa (12th), the very high proficiency group comprising 13 countries was dominated by European countries, led by the Netherlands (1st) and Austria (2nd)."
Our inefficiency in communication skills is allowing expatriate workers from our neighbouring countries to siphon billions of dollars from the NGO, banking, and RMG sectors. It would be interesting to compare the remittance sent in by our unskilled workers with the one sent out by skilled expats. Education, both formal and informal, is the only remedy that can bridge the gap. And for that, we will need the right educators.
Prof Hamid's own research shows that many students are acquiring English language skills from the internet in absence of support services in school. This is also true for China and Saudi Arabia. We need expert teachers who can gear the primary and secondary students to the best practices. Clearly, the existing stock has failed for a whole gamut of reasons, including the retirement of experienced teachers, insufficient knowledge, poorly designed textbooks, a convoluted language policy, politicisation, insufficient training, paltry pay – the list goes on.
The government has done remarkable jobs in spreading education, and in making education accessible to all. Programmes like free textbooks, meal for school children, and uniform budget are laudable. But tempted by the number game, we often compromise quality. It is time to bring good teachers to the classroom; the rest will follow.
How do I know? Look at some of the top private universities that are in their 20s and 30s. Already, some of them have outpaced the age-old public universities in different quality measures. These universities pay handsome salaries to attract faculty members with foreign degrees, prompting a reverse brain drain. They also utilise the expertise of senior retired professors. And then there are other private universities that probably pay Tk 10,000 to a university lecturer, and are guilty of selling certificates.
Indeed, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB).