Can we prevent a potential collapse of the current education system?
The second wave of the pandemic has crashed onto Bangladesh and other countries, including India, after a downturn earlier in the year, dashing the hope for a waning of the pandemic. The shock has revived deep anxieties about protecting life and livelihood. The budget discussion so far focuses on expanding economic activities and funding the health sector. Mostly left out from the discussion is the plight of 40 million students, a quarter of the population, who have by now lost 13 months of their educational life. They need help to recover their loss in learning and overcoming social and emotional trauma.
In a consultation with Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal on April 11, the Bangladesh Economic Association President Abul Barakat proposed a Taka 14,000 trillion (14 lakh crore) "alternative" budget, about two and a half times of the current year budget, to free the country from the pandemic impact and recast the economy to build an equitable society in the spirit of our liberation. The proposal urges large investments in health, education, technology and other employment producing plans. The resources for these investments are to be found by targeting those who have amassed phenomenal wealth from illegal and corrupt exploitation of the economy.
As reported in the press, the Finance Minister refrained from commenting on the proposed structural reform in the economy. Expressing his views, he said that the health sector would receive priority in the new budget. Continuation of the stimulus for economic activities and safety net relief offered in the current year will be major items in the next budget. He said expansion of incentives for new areas of economic activities was supported by the economists. The economists' suggestions would be looked at by his team and the Prime Minister would provide guidance in making the ultimate decisions. Apparently, the collapse of the education system and its budgetary and other implications were not an item of discourse.
A public webinar was hosted by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) on April 12 on tackling the second wave of the pandemic. The invited speakers appropriately spoke about necessary moves regarding protection from the galloping spread of infection, the hospital bed and ICU shortages, the efficacy of lockdown and ensuring a square meal for the families of workers surviving on their day's earnings. A large proportion of the 40 million students, who belong to the families at risk of losing their daily sustenance, did not figure in the discussion.
Experts on the viral pandemic predict a flattening of the infection curve when herd immunity is achieved through vaccination or infection or a combination of both. This may take a year or longer, depending on the pace of vaccination coverage, government measures to prevent spread of infection and the people's response to these steps. The World Bank has projected that vaccination coverage in Bangladesh will not reach 70 percent before the end of 2022, which is likely to generate herd immunity.
The current 2020-21 budget for the education sector, prepared after the onset of the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020, was a pedestrian expenditure plan showing no recognition of the looming education threats of the pandemic. There has been no significant pandemic adjustment in later revisions of the education budget.
The response of the two ministries of education so far can be described as the minimum essential required from the education authorities. These included issuing periodic orders to extend school closure; offering distance education lessons through TV, radio and internet which did not effectively reach the large majority of students or cover much of the learning content; and cancelling public examinations and grading students based on their past records.
It must be noted that the majority of the 40 million students are served by educational services not directly under government management or financially supported by the government. The proportions vary by stages, but more than half of the students in early childhood education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), madrasas and tertiary level are enrolled in institutions not financed by the government.
Private institutions, now mostly cut off from their income source, are in financial distress and many are likely to be shut down permanently. What will be the consequences for overall education services in the country and what can be done by way of government policy and financial support to prevent a large part of the education services disappearing? This must be a concern for the policymakers. The government must consider what to do in the budget for FY 2021-22 to prevent a potential collapse of the education system.
Education Watch, in an interim report of its study titled "Bringing schools and learning back on track", which was presented to the government on January 17, identified key action points including financing measures. The action points include safe reopening of schools in a phased manner, a learning recovery programme that extends to at least two years, its flexible and decentralised implementation that involves civil society and NGOs, and taking medium and longer term views of the actions planned. An expanded Education Watch report detailing these steps is under preparation and is expected to be released shortly.
It is clear that additional public financial support will be required for implementing the school reopening and education recovery programme.Most institutions at primary and secondary level are financially strapped and do not have the resources necessary for offering quality instruction. They will be hard-pressed to comply with the health and safety regulations and carry out the extra efforts and activities anticipated for the learning recovery programme.
About Tk 66,000 crore is in the FY2020-21 education budget, a part of which will remain unspent due to the pandemic. A substantial amount needs to be allocated to support primary and secondary schools to carry out their recovery plan. Schools not covered by monthly pay order (MPO) support should also be assisted, since as many as half of the school-going students are in non-government institutions of various kinds.
The approach for funding support to institutions should be based on the following principles. At least 10 percent of the revised Ministry of Primary and Mass Education and Ministry of Education budget for this year and the budget next year should be devoted to reopening and recovery support. At least Tk 10 crore for each of the 500 upazilas and thanas should be distributed proportionate to student numbers to support primary and secondary schools (an average of about Taka three lakh per institution each year) to carry out their recovery plan. Schools not covered by MPO support should be assisted in appropriate ways, including interest free and subsidised loans through the banking system. A major investment should be made to expand ICT-based hybrid/blended learning in every school.
At the primary level, schools receiving the modest school level improvement plan (SLIP) grants may begin their reopening and recovery with these funds, but will need further support beyond SLIP, which, in any case, does not cover all schools. An upazila working group should be involved in facilitating, approving and overseeing funding support to local institutions and monitoring its use within the overall central guidelines; the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), as a national education network with member organisations in all parts of the country, can support the government in this process.
The initiatives for the budget measures for education must originate from the two ministries of education. They have to make the case, defend it and convince the decision-makers that they have the capacity and will to make good use of the funds.
Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac