A lot of time has been spent on improving primary education enrolment. Global goals emphasise on 'education for all' and focus on bringing more people under the umbrella of primary level education. Thus, international support has been less oriented towards higher education. While the objective of universal access to primary and secondary education is still crucial, the need for improving higher education is no less important. Given that Bangladesh is expected to graduate from the least developed country status in a few years and the government has also set its ambition to become a high income country by 2041, emphasis has to be on knowledge, technological progress and innovation much more than ever before.
Higher education, when compared to other emerging countries, has a long way to go. Barring a handful of students, most university graduates lack the quality that the market requires. Organisations are increasingly facing difficulties in getting the type of human resources that they require. Among the thousands of graduates, only a small section get any opportunity in the academic field, some go to the private sector, another group chooses self-employment, and a large number are left unemployed. Employability is of course determined by the supply and demand of graduates in the market. In a populated country with a small sized economy, there is an excess supply of university degree holders. However, employability also depends on other factors. Quality and standard are important factors for an employer.
In many private sector companies, a few top positions are being filled by people from neighbouring countries. Quality, productivity and reliability for delivery of services are the factors that Bangladeshi employers are now looking for. This is because the global economy is becoming increasingly competitive. Employers need a highly skilled workforce to compete. Bangladeshi graduates are falling short of the expectations of employers. This, despite the fact that the key objective of all private universities is to offer degrees on business administration more than any other subject.
In academia, there is a general lack of interest to go for higher studies abroad, particularly for doctorate degrees. One has to spend four to five years to pursue a PhD degree at a reputed foreign university. The process is not only lengthy, but also rigorous and difficult. Individuals nowadays find the trade-off less worthy. The time they would spend abroad can be more rewarding, both professionally and financially, in Bangladesh. They would be able to teach in a number of private universities, do consultancies, etc. There is no time to improve upon their sphere of knowledge or get updated on the latest study findings. Promotions at their universities do not require publication in internationally reputed peer reviewed journals. Joint publications with other colleagues in local journals fulfil the criterion for promotion. A large consultancy market is also out there which requires their services.
However, there is a new group of eager learners who avail the opportunity to get doctorate degrees from various sources and means. A few years back, a US university office located in Kakrail, Dhaka, was shut down by the authorities for carrying out the business of offering online PhD to candidates for a handsome amount of money. Although the university was closed down, its degree holders are still around. There are several doctorate degree holders in the country now who have obtained their degrees through sub-standard, non-accredited western universities operating illegally. When they are asked about the topic and the supervisor of their doctoral thesis, there is hesitation in their response. When asked about their leave of absence for studies, there is silence. If the responsibility of teaching is bestowed upon these unearned PhD holders, one can imagine the outcome.
The Education Ministry has the tough job of monitoring college and university teachers who have not earned their doctorate degrees from accredited universities, but they are eager to use the prefix of 'Dr' with their names. This has become an obsession and something of a status symbol for many. Some are acquiring the degree after their retirement from service. While this spirit is praiseworthy, the value is limited.
Mediocrity and sub-standard education cannot contribute to high productivity and economic growth. The current knowledge system in the country is not useful for steady progress. Leaving aside the developed countries of the West, the experience of East Asian countries such as China, Korea and Singapore indicates a close relationship between high quality education and economic development. Reforms in their education sector have been geared towards developing a sound education system that brought about economic and social progress at a faster pace than many countries. It is time for us to appreciate the importance of good quality higher education and set it as a national priority.
The writer is the Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue.