Graduate unemployment: Who's to blame?
A two-day-long job fair was hosted during January 7-8 in Gazipur, by the deputy commissioner of the district. The purpose was to help connect job-seekers and employers – a commendable objective. The event drew media attention when the minister of liberation war affairs, AKM Mozammel Haque, as chief guest, said, "Universities have become factories that churn out unemployable people. The resources and talents of the country are being wasted." He also observed that a job advertisement by the district administration for an office peon would attract applications from a thousand people with Master's degrees.
An Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report in 2014 had claimed that 47 percent of university graduates in Bangladesh were unemployed. That is almost half of the graduates. A 2017 Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) report went a step further and reported 66 percent unemployment among graduates.
The EIU report attracted media attention and was challenged on several counts. The method generally used for measuring unemployment did not capture the specific situation of the graduates. For instance, a portion of graduates did not accept jobs that did not meet their expectations in respect of salary, working conditions, or fit one's aptitude and field of education. A large number of women graduates, as many as one-third, chose not to be in the job market. The methodology of measuring unemployment does not account for underemployment (part-time jobs or jobs paying lower than comparable market wage), seasonal employment, and paid or casually paid employment in family enterprises. And the questions posed about the EIU report also could be asked about the BIDS report.
But to mention the failings of the EIU or BIDS reports is not to deny the problem with respect to both education and employment. It just points to difficulties of defining the problem.
In fact, having a higher youth (15-24 years) unemployment rate than the general unemployment rate is a global phenomenon. In Bangladesh, according to BBS, this stood at 10.6 percent in 2021, more than twice the overall national unemployment rate of 5.2 percent.
The populist remedies for youth and educated unemployment, echoed by the minister, include: providing more technical and vocational training at tertiary and pre-tertiary levels; restricting expansion of and entry into higher education; providing more job-related academic programmes and courses; and making tertiary education more practical for life (besides just making students tech-savvy). There are also boilerplate demands for better teaching-learning, curriculum reform, more research, and so on.
All these points have some validity, but taking each remedy in an isolated manner without a coherent and coordinated plan, and more importantly, not following through with effective implementation steps cannot produce the desired results.
At the secondary level, in the last two decades, participation in technical-vocational education has risen from one percent to 15 percent, but the result has not been satisfactory with respect to training quality and marketability of learners. This is especially the case with vocational courses in general secondary schools.
Bangladesh actually remains behind many other developing countries in providing higher education opportunities. And so, employability of graduates has remained an issue.
With rapidly changing technology, labour market and job profiles, it is unrealistic to expect an arithmetic symmetry between skill requirements of jobs and what is learned in tertiary institutions. Universities can provide generic skills useful for a range of jobs. Job-specific skills are better acquired through internship, apprenticeship, induction training, short training courses, and on-the-job upgrading, which demand university-industry collaboration. This result is attained when an acceptable quality of instruction is maintained.
The flexible supply-demand relationship in the job market puts a premium on the quality of education, irrespective of the subject or discipline of a student. This is where the greatest failure of Bangladesh's tertiary education system lies. When employers complain about not finding the workers they need, they are often talking about job-seekers lacking communication and literacy skills, the ability to think rationally and critically, computer skills, creativity, and soft skills such as working in a team, maintaining discipline, and taking pride in one's work.
There are policy and strategy measures needed in education, not just for higher education. A rapidly changing job market, dominance of digital technology in future jobs, and need for the capability to adapt to change and upgrade workers' skills accordingly demand an acceptable quality of general secondary schools. The secondary level – as provider of foundational competencies for the future workforce of the nation (in both the formal and informal economy) – has to ensure that competencies in language and communication, maths, and science are acquired by all to an acceptable level. The beginning, in fact, has to be made in the early childhood development stage and must continue through primary and secondary education.
All the deficits of school education cannot possibly be overcome at the tertiary level when students already arrive there unprepared in terms of the basic skills and knowledge needed to pursue higher education at colleges, universities, and higher level technical training institutions. But there is a lot that also has to be done to improve the performance of tertiary education.
A Strategic Plan for Higher Education Development (SPHED 2018-30) was prepared by the University Grants Commission (UGC) with assistance from the World Bank. The president of the country (as the chancellor of universities), the prime minister, and the then education minister wrote messages endorsing the plan and encouraging its implementation.
An initiative, with government approval and Unesco and Global Partnership for Education support, to develop an education sector plan was undertaken and a draft was prepared in 2020. The education authorities, for reasons not quite comprehensible – except perhaps customary inertia and a preference for the status quo – have not taken any steps to move it forward. The draft sector plan for Bangladesh sits idle on the website of the Global Partnership for Education. Meanwhile, the first five-year phase of the strategic plan for higher education approved by the government passed without any demonstrable steps taken for implementing it.
A few of the key points of the SPHED and the draft education sector plan worth highlighting are: a) Political and administrative decision-makers should vow to protect higher education from destructive, shortsighted and politically-motivated decisions and actions.
b) The highest priority should be given to bringing institutions up to agreed-upon standards and no new institutions should be established without a guarantee of maintaining these standards for physical facilities, teaching personnel, and educational activities.
c) An urgent action plan should be initiated for colleges under the National University regarding physical facilities, teaching staff, and accountable management; division-wise affiliated universities should be set up as anticipated in the Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission.
d) The UGC should be transformed into a Higher Education Commission with the authority, capacity, and resources to supervise the quality improvement of public and private higher education entities.
e) The 1973 public university ordinances and the 2010 Private Universities Act should be appropriately amended, balancing academic autonomy, fostering an academic environment, and promoting accountable governance.
f) Investment and capacity-building in educational technology should lead to widespread adoption of blended learning among all institutions and learners.
The way ahead lies in a strategic agenda, based on a social compact to promote the complementarity of public and private contributions within a regulatory framework aimed at optimising the "public good" aspects of skills development and tertiary education.
The irony is that this is a political settlement challenge, which has hindered progress so far.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University, chair of Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN), and vice-chair of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE).