Students getting a slim slice of the budget pie
At a preparatory meeting for ULAB's planned virtual convocation, I suggested that we use the iconic image of Keanu Reeves dodging many bullets in the Matrix trilogy as our promotional campaign. After all, our motto this year is "against all odds", which chimes with Reeves' ("Neo" in the movie) slo-mo tackling of a flurry of bullets. The pandemic has made us take shelter in a virtual world as we try to protect ourselves from the multifrontal attack of the ever-evolving virus. Everyone laughed, and my suggestion was nothing more than "a glitch in the system" just like déjà vu is a glitch in the "matrix"—the simulated reality that makes humanity unaware that artificial intelligence has actually taken over the world. Not everyone shares their likings of the same movies; unfortunately, thanks to a global crisis, we all share the same predicaments.
Going through the reports on the budgetary allocation for education, I had a déjà vu. There is not much difference from last year's facts and figures, both in terms of size and percentage. The finance minister in his budget speech proposed an allocation of Tk 36,486 crore for secondary and higher education under the national budget of Tk 603,681 crore. In FY 2020-2021, the allocation in these sectors was Tk 33,118 crore. For technical and madrasa education, the allocation shows a slight rise from last year's figure of Tk 8,345 crore to Tk 9,153 crore, while the figure for primary and mass education stands at Tk 26,314 crore against last year's Tk 24,937 crore. The total amount of Tk 71,951 crore—for the Primary and Mass Education Ministry, Secondary and Higher Education Division, and Technical and Madrasa Education Division combined—makes up 11.91 percent of the total outlay of the FY 2021-22 budget, and its share in the GDP stands at 2.08 percent.
Is the feeling that we have seen the same education budget last year a glitch in the system? There was hope that the budget for 2021-22 would bring some succour to the sector that is reeling with the Covid-19 pandemic adversely affecting it. Before the pandemic hit us, we met the criteria to move out of the list of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by 2024. The revised schedule is 2026. The graduation requires considerable improvement in our human indexes. Yet a Wikilist showing government education expenditures of various countries in percentage of GDP places Bangladesh on the 183rd spot. Only ten other countries have less than our 2 percent allocation, and the percentage is significantly lower than the world's average of 4.5 (World Bank, 2019). The World Bank data claims that Bangladesh actually spent 1.3 percent of its GDP in 2019, whereas the two other neighbouring countries that have qualified for LDC graduation—Bhutan and Nepal—spent 6.9 percent and 5.1 percent respectively. The UNESCO advises a minimum 6 percent of the GDP for education for a country's sustainability.
What are the implications of a smaller slice of the budget pie for education? For one, it does not demonstrate any sincere desire or designated roadmap for a recovery from the pandemic-inflicted losses. The finance minister did mention the public TV and community radio initiatives. The efficacy of those projects is anybody's guess. Suffice to remind one of a viral BTV programme in which the teacher could not solve a simple addition. To add insult to injury, the internet data price and the price of mobile devices will also go up after this budget.
The proposal of using public education platforms or paraphernalia does not add up. At the sight of coronavirus, in March last year, we scrambled to our smartphones and computers to download Zoom, Google suite, or MS Teams. Under strict lockdown measures, we asked our students to decamp from closed campuses, and they spent the next indefinite period of time (14 months and counting) logging on to classes from their homes, using their own electronic devices and data.
With the vaccine drama still unfolding, we are still grappling with the idea of whether to bring our students back to physical classrooms or continue teaching remotely for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, many countries around the world have adopted a hybrid model that combines on-campus classes with virtual classes. We are still on a thinking-what-to-think mode. The UGC has recently woken up from its proverbial slumber to ask us to discuss the issue at an academic council level and go for physical exams.
As an educator-cum-administrator, I know how many of our students have been traumatised by these virtual classes and social distancing, and how many of our faculty members are suffering from Zoom fatigue. The number of students dealing with mental stress, anxieties, and even suicidal thoughts is staggering. Experts agree that in the absence of proper incentives, many students will be forced to leave education and add to the tally of young offenders, child marriage, early pregnancy and child labour.
The only sector that has shown some resilience during this pandemic has been slapped with a 15 percent tax. Sheikh Kabir Hossain, president of the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh (APUB), urged the government earlier saying: "During the Covid-19 situation, even as the private universities are facing a fund crisis, the imposition of a 15 percent income tax on them by the government will exacerbate the crisis even more."
To think that only the upper-middle class and the affluent class attend the private universities is a fallacy that we cannot afford. Dear Minister, please come and sit with us at a financial support or scholarship giving meeting. Listen to the prayers of the students who are failing to pay the tuition fees as their parents have lost their jobs or business, or they themselves have lost their tuition. Dear Minister, please visit the FB pages run by the teachers who are half-fed or running away from creditors as their employers have either halved or stopped their salaries. Track the number of faculty and staff members who have lost their jobs during this pandemic. They do not have influential brokers to make their cases heard. There is no incentive package for them.
Not all private universities are profit-making machines or certificates-selling entities. Weed out the bad ones if needed, but do not throw the baby with the bathwater. There are universities that are trying to make a difference. Private universities are contributing to the national human capital. Students (public or private) are not commodities. Any additional tax will force the private institutions to increase their tuition fees. In the process, there will be more dropouts and student mobility. Those who can afford will look for opportunities abroad. These graduates will not be able to contribute to national growth because of a policy that fails to see the big picture. Meanwhile, "foreign" experts will keep on skimming billions from our job sector.
The myopic decision to increase tax on the private universities will brew tension in an already unstable system. One just needs to recall the No-VAT Movement in 2015 when students took to the streets chanting that they were not value-added commodities.
With the new taxation, the non-profit organisations will be compelled to retract their development activities. Without investing in cutting-edge technology, research, and scholarly publications, the institutions will not be able to provide the local students with the best practices. According to an ADB report, "universities that adopt quality online learning, forge significant partnerships, and demonstrate results in preparing students of all ages for work in a technology-driven economy, stand the best chance of thriving after the pandemic."
Have we made enough provisions to thrive in a post-pandemic world? This will require more than the computer animation applied to Neo to avoid the bullets that are heading our way.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English (on leave) at Dhaka University.