Education budget not enough for 40 million learners
The government has declared the national budget at a time when the world is still reeling from the Covid pandemic. And now, we are looking at yet another global crisis of energy and food security. No doubt, these have come as big shocks for Bangladesh. A budget declared at such a critical juncture is expected to present a way to absorb some of the shocks.
It seems the focus of the budget has mostly been on bringing the economy back on track. However, the government appears to have ignored the fact that the education sector is suffering immensely from Covid impacts, and that, without appropriate interventions and judicious investment, we risk jeopardising the future of a whole generation of Bangladeshis. In fact, this year's budget looks like any other budget from the previous years. It does not reflect the aspirations of the 40 million learners, half a million teachers and the millions of their family members who have been struggling to minimise the massive learning loss that has aggravated pre-existing inequalities in accessing quality education.
The Ministry of Primary and Mass Education and the Ministry of Education both prepared Covid response and recovery plans. But there is no indication in the budget as to how these plans are to be implemented. Bangladesh, over the last 50 years, has achieved some milestones in education. For instance, Bangladesh has been acclaimed globally for achieving gender parity in enrolment at the primary and secondary levels and also at the teacher level. An increasing number of students are enrolling into technical and vocational programmes. But how can we retain these achievements moving forward? The proposed budget has not provided any indication in this regard.
Covid taught us that we need to move forward with a combination of both offline and online lessons. Though the budget does highlight the importance of ICT to some extent, there is no recognition of the inequalities in accessing digital technologies which were further exacerbated during the pandemic. The finance minister has mentioned that 170 million people have mobile phones, but what about the increasing expenses related to internet facilities that a huge segment of our population can't afford?
The focus of the world is to bring students back to schools, to retain them in classes and to ensure they are not lagging behind. In order to do so, there needs to be provisions for adequate funding. However, our budget has seen only a nominal increase for education from the past year – 12 percent of the total budget, compared to 11.9 percent in FY2021-22. When compared to the GDP ratio, it is only 1.83 percent, less than the outgoing fiscal year's allocation and the lowest in South Asia. This is undoubtedly disappointing, particularly considering the present scenario in education.
To meet our SDG targets, our government is committed to allocate at least 4-6 percent of GDP for education. But what about our National Education Policy (NEP) 2010, which was adopted in the parliament? There is almost no reflection of all of these commitments in the proposed national budget.
Also, why is there so little allocation for research in education? Research is all the more relevant now, particularly in light of Covid, because we need credible, scientific data for realistic planning. We don't know exactly how many have dropped out of the education system, how many have become victims of early marriage or how many learners have joined the labour force. If we want credible data, we have to invest in research.
Tax has been levied on private universities again, as was attempted last year. The burden of this tax will no doubt fall on the students and their families who are already struggling to face the challenges of inflation. Can the government ensure that universities pay the tax from their profits without imposing it on their students?
The government needs to think of education as a single sector – from pre-primary to higher education, including technical, vocational, and professional education – and it should get the single largest allocation in the budget.
In terms of the declared budget, the government should think about reallocating some of the resources to critical and overlooked areas, such as bringing children back to schools, mitigating learning loss and addressing malnutrition. We want a specific budget to target vulnerable and excluded groups, such as children with disabilities – not simply as part of social safety net allocation but specifically for education.
The amount of the stipends should be doubled considering the inflation over the years. Even if it is not possible to implement this right away, it should remain as the government's vision and objective to increase the amount and widen the outreach of the stipends. There has to be a specific allocation for victims of early marriage in 2020 and 2021 to encourage them to come back to schools/colleges.
I felt happy to hear when the finance minister mentioned the new curriculum, but implementation of a new curriculum requires specific allocation. It focuses more on creative learning, values education, continuous assessment and innovative practices inside the classroom. If we really want to make these changes happen, we need to allocate money, as and where required.
The nation is going to enjoy the fruits of "megaprojects" like Padma Bridge thanks to our government. But if we don't invest enough in developing our human resources, how are we hoping to sustain the results of our mega initiatives? Unfortunately, this year's budget has almost no indication of investing in youth who are expected to lead the country in 2041.
Finally, allocation is just one side of the coin. We also need to focus on budget utilisation and monitoring. There is hardly any point in pressing for more funds, if we don't utilise the budget effectively. In his budget speech, the finance minister mentioned timely completion of education and health sector projects as one of six challenges. It is evident that the government mechanism should be strengthened and committed to ensure accountability and transparency while utilising the budget at each and every stage.
Bangladesh is progressing, but if the progress is uneven, then expectations of the majority of learners will remain unfulfilled.
Rasheda K Choudhury is executive director of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE).