Education lags again in funding and action
The official rhetoric of priority for education and human development has once again failed to be reflected in the national budget proposed for fiscal year 2023-24. The record-high national budget of Tk 761,785 crore has in it the record-low allocation of Tk 88,000 crore for education – which amounts to 11.57 percent of the total budget and 1.76 percent of GDP. Though marginally higher in nominal amounts than the current year's allocations, these numbers mark a historic low proportionately. So much for the government's vaunted priority for education!
Civil society members and even politicians have, in pre-budget discussions, routinely called for larger government budgets for education. They have tried to make the case that the national goal of scaling the heights of an upper-middle-income country and eventually reaching the rank of a developed nation requires this investment. They cite the very low public education budgets compared to those of neighbouring and other developing nations. They mention the recommended international standard of six percent of GDP and a commensurate 20 percent or so of national budget for the education sector.
In his budget statement, titled "Towards Smart Bangladesh Sustaining the Development Achievements in a Decade and a Half", Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said, "Enhancing the quality of education at all levels is our special commitment." He confidently asserted that, "We are reaping the benefits of the government's policies as well as targeted spending in education and skill development over the past 14 years."
Observers of the education scene and concerned citizens will commend the expression of commitment to quality, but most will dispute the assertion that we are reaping the benefits of policies and targeted spending.
In the budget details of the activities to be supported, it can be seen that it is a continuation of what is being done within the existing pattern and structure. As much is admitted when it is said, "In the primary education sector, we will continue our regular activities, especially infrastructure development; expansion, repair and renovation; stipend; distribution of textbooks and other education materials; recruitment and training of teachers; digitisation, school feeding etc." A similar emphasis on infrastructure, supplies, and expansion is seen at other levels of education.
Not that infrastructure and expansion are not needed. Educators, however, argue that the inputs do not guarantee outcomes in students' learning and competencies unless the inputs are put to good use through necessary measures. These include good pedagogy, enough qualified teachers, devoted work by skilled teachers, supervision and accountability in each school, a facilitative learning environment in schools, and fair assessment of what students have and have not learned.
Access to education at all levels has certainly expanded, especially so at the primary stage. Besides the expansion, available evidence on a student's learning outcome and reducing inequity and exclusion in the system does not offer much reason for comfort.
The disruptive impact of the pandemic – especially the lengthy school closure – and putting students back on track, have been a worldwide concern. Education Watch and other studies have warned about the immediate and likely long-term harm caused by the pandemic to learners and the education system in Bangladesh. They have pleaded for urgent remedial measures with resource support and funding for schools and teachers.
The new budget has not displayed cognisance of the need for post-pandemic recovery and remedial actions. We have seen the same denial of pandemic effects and the need for recovery support for education in previous years' budgets (between FY 2020-21 to 2022-23) during the peak of the pandemic and its immediate aftermath.
When the national budget fails to give due recognition to the needs and priorities of a vital sector such as education, is it the failure of the Minister of Finance, who presents the budget on behalf of the government? The budget planners at the Ministry of Finance are not expected to be knowledgeable about the intricacies of the right strategies and programmes regarding education or what should be given priority among competing demands. The education authorities – in Bangladesh, the two Ministries of Education – have to make a case and be persuasive about it.
Education activists who have argued for bold new initiatives in education enhancing skills and capabilities for the next generation have found it difficult to engage with the education authorities in a serious dialogue. Having two ministries of education with divided turfs even for managing school education has not helped the shaping of a holistic vision for change. The senior functionaries of the two ministries who seem to be calling the shots are happy with the status quo, not inclined to rock the boat.
We do not know what the two ministries asked for in terms of raising allocations for the sector and whether any innovative thinking found a place in their budget submission. There has not been great receptivity in the two ministries of education and from the political decision-makers towards civil society education advocates' pleas for re-imagining 21st century education.
The education re-imagination agenda includes moving towards greater and more genuine decentralisation of education governance, attracting talented people towards the teaching profession and keeping them there, a major initiative to widely and effectively apply the blended approach (merging tech-based and teacher-supported learning), building partnerships between government and non-state actors, and establishing a permanent education commission to guide and monitor education system changes. These could be the components of an education sector plan and a 10-year megaproject for education.
At the political level, as in the senior education bureaucracy, there appears to be little appetite for thinking about and acting on transformative changes in education that goes beyond mere lip service.
A case in point is a Tk 100 crore special allocation in the budget proposal for the skills development of the youth. It is expected that "research and innovation centres of various local universities will train 80,000 youth in advanced technology and entrepreneurship development." The intention is laudable. It is, however, not likely that a standalone project of this kind can succeed when most "local universities" cannot meet minimum standards of academic environment and performance.
The bottom line is that Bangladesh's education system needs much larger public investment, but the desired results can be achieved only when the priorities, programmes and strategies for effective action are in place and backed up by high level political decisions.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University, chair of Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN) and vice-chair of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). The views expressed in this article are his own.