The case of prestige in higher education
No sooner had the results for the Higher Secondary and School Certificate (HSC) examination been published that strong deliberation regarding the problems and prospects of further education after HSC sprang up. Major print and electronic media covered the news giving utmost priority to the said issue.
Tertiary education is divided down two streams—one is 2-3 years long diploma and certificate courses in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutes; and the other is 3-years and above long degree courses in colleges and universities. An estimate showed that only 0.52 percent of people completed diploma, certificate or an equivalent degree, whereas approximately 95 percent students completed pass degree, honours degree, masters' or its equivalent degree and 2.63 percent students completed professional MBBS/BDS, engineering or an equivalent degree in 2013. Implying that, popularity of university-level degree among HSC graduates and their parents/guardians is very high. But labour market prospects of university graduates are bleak compared to TVET graduates. An estimate shows that 25 percent of TVET graduates are unemployed compared to 45 percent of university/college graduates. Despite that, HSC graduates and their parents prefer higher education to diploma or certificate degrees.
In the 1950s, James Becker, an American economist, first explored the relationship between education and income and, thereafter, published his seminal work known as “the theory of human capital”. Putting it simply, human capital refers to knowledge and ability of human beings. At that time, contemporary economists agreed that both human and physical capital are essential for a country's development. And the return to human capital is very personal. Here the personal gain is obviously nothing but monetary gain. Consequently, in order to maximise personal gains, graduates aspire for higher education in their preferred university or college. Apart from that, there are facts that, asymmetric labour market information, social matters like social prestige and status where an HSC graduate lives, influence their decision about higher education. James Becker missed this point in his theory.
Experience shows that social network and connection play a vital role in the decision-making process of an HSC graduate's preferred destination for further education. In the decision-making process, an HSC graduate or his/her parents are not aware of the implications of further education. More than two close relatives of mine, who live in the peri-urban city Savar have sent their sons and daughters to private universities to get a bachelor degree in business. A few months back, when I came across them, I asked why their parents had sent them to university. They replied that it is their perception that the prospect and prestige of a business graduate was very high in society. They were unable to verify their perception with any evidence as there is none available. The pity is that many parents send their children to pursue higher education in both public and private universities, hoping that their children after graduation will get decent employment. Their expectation in terms of both economics and prestige fall flat when they find that their children, despite having a university/college degree, neither find any employment nor are they self-employed. The parents are seldom, if ever, advised to take an alternative direction of educating their children in TVET institutions.
In addition, in spite of enough information, some parents decide to send their boys/girls to university to maximise social prestige although their children do not have good pre-university academic results that make them fit to pursue higher education. In developed countries, the matter of prestige in occupational choice is totally absent. Once, at an Australian university, the Head of the Department of the School of Commerce, who was a Professor in Economics, very proudly said to me that his son was a carpenter. Similarly, I can recall in the Netherlands, where I attended a training organised by a big consulting firm, the top boss of the company told me that his son was a hotel receptionist. None of them felt shy to disclose the profession of their children. This is absent in our country and other underdeveloped countries.
In today's globalised world, we can no longer keep ourselves isolated from the rest of the world. It is important to change the social taboo associated with some professions. At this stage, the government and parents have crucial roles and responsibilities to fulfil. The government can set up “Employment Centres” (EC) in its remote administrative districts under the Ministry of Employment and Labour. The ECs will run a vital point of consultation (or share information) about employment or vacancies in home-based companies/firms/offices as found in developed countries like Australia or the UK. The centres may work as a bridge between the employers and potential employees. Finally, although it is not very easy to change the social outlook about TVET graduates overnight, the government may work to prepare a national qualification framework including TVET and university/college level degrees so that TVET graduates can attend university at any stage of their life to get a higher degree if they wish. This will enhance their social position to some extent.
Shamsul Arifeen Khan Mamun is an Education Economist, who has been working at the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) of the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) since 2016. Email: email@example.com