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Bangladesh education systems and employment markets : Challenges and way out

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Shahin Reza  :


Food, clothing, shelter, education and health were known for decades as the four fundamental needs of human beings. After Independence in 1971 as a new nation we have made significant progress in all the four areas, ensuring all the fundamental needs for the people of Bangladesh.  Among these though, I consider 'quality education' as the 'mother' of all the others.
Background of Bangladesh education system:
The word 'quality' is the key here.  In Bangladesh we have one of the most diverse education systems in the world, which puts us in a challenging situation to ensure standardization of different streams of education.
¢Higher Secondary
¢General Education
Primary education is mandatory for all children between the ages of 6 and 10. General education can be considered the mainstream education system of the country as almost 80% students enroll in this system.  There are public exams at the end of grade 5.
¢Madrasha Education
Madrasha education is the 2nd largest stream.  It is broadly divided into 2 categories which are (a) Qaumi Madrasha and (b) Ibtidai Madrasha.
¢International education
There are a number of international awarding bodies offering their curricula from primary to grade 12, which are commonly known as English Medium Education. Almost all international schools are run by the private sector and cater to  niche segments, considered  financially well off.
In the Secondary education system we have a similar structure to primary.  We have 2 public examinations at Secondary level, one is after completion of grade 8 and the other is after grade 10. The grade10 completion certificate, known as SSC,is one of the most critical certificates for admission into Tertiary educational institutions.  At the Secondary level we have specialized divisions, namely Science, Arts and Commerce.  In addition, we have vocational Secondary qualifications which allow progression into specialized vocational qualifications in grade 11 and 12 which leads to diplomas in the respective subject areas. After completion of the Secondary Certificate in Science discipline, students can also apply for a diploma in Engineering along with Secondary vocational graduates.
Higher Secondary
Higher Secondary consists of grades 11 and 12. There are public examinations after completion of grade 12, known as HSC.  The grading system in all the public examinations up to HSC are on GPA 5 scale, which is also convertible into alphabetic grades.
The success rate at both SSC and HSC has increased significantly during the last decade including "GPA 5" and also there is a best of the best category called "Golden GPA 5".  However, there is serious concern about the quality of education upto HSC level.  Even though all the public examinations are set based on standardized processes, still there are significant differences in overall standard among the students from urban and rural institutions.
Tertiary education
The demand for Tertiary education started increasing in the'90s.  Considering the increasing demand in 1992, the National University Bangladesh was established by an Act of Parliament to affiliate Public and Private Colleges across the country to offer undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.  Currently about 2,300 colleges are affiliated with the National University that caters to approximately2.8 million students.  In terms of the student population, the National University Bangladesh is the 2nd largest university in the world after Indira Gandhi National Open University.
In the year 1992, Private University Act was passed by Parliament to allow private entrepreneurs to establish universities. During the last 2 decades, the private university has become a very attractive business proposition for investors and a large number of private university approvals have been given considering the political background of the trustees.
Currently we have 103 Private Universities, 45P Universities and 3 International Universities across the country. However, a large number of Private Universities are based in Dhaka.
Professional qualifications
The size of the professional qualifications market is relatively small in Bangladesh. There are a number of chartered bodies offering professional qualifications, namely the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh (ICAB), Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of Bangladesh (ICMAB) and Institute of Chartered Secretaries of Bangladesh (ICSB).  Qualifications offered by these chartered bodies are considered of good standard and well recognized by national and multinational companies in Bangladesh.  In addition, similar types of professional qualifications are also offered by a number of chartered bodies from the United Kingdom.
Overall quality of education
 Great emphasis has been given by the government of Bangladesh to ensure access to education from primary to tertiary levels.  With economic growth, the government and parents are making significant investment in education and increasing the capacity at all levels.As such, access to education has increased massively. We can now claim that access to primary education is 100% which is a significant achievement. However, while we have managed to increase the overall capacity at all levels, we have not addressed quality with the same success, of it which is absolutely critical for employment.   The importance of education is reflected in our Constitution when it was made mandatory as one of the fundamental rights for the people of Bangladesh.
Education and employment
In general terms, employers are the main users of education.   As illustrations, we can focus on a few areas of employment and the relevance of our education system to these. Readymade garments and overseas employment are 2 major contributors to our economy.  However, if we carefully look into the link between our education system and these industries, there is very little or no relevance of our education system to meet their demand for skilled labour.
We all know a large number of expats are working in Bangladesh from neighboring countries (particularly from India and Sri Lanka).  It is really sad that after almost 40 years since the establishment of the RMG sector and  being the second largest producer of RMG  goods in the world, we have not been able to develop our own technical capacity to address the sector's  needs.  It is often said that over 500,000 Indians are working in Bangladesh mostly in the RMG sector and annually remitting BDT 850 billion. This is an estimated figure as we don't have proper official records.
On the other hand, about 10 million Bangladeshis are working abroad mostly as unskilled or semi-skilled labourers.  Again, we started human resource export about 40 years back and sadly we are still exporting largely unskilled labour. If our people working abroad had relevant technical qualifications, our inbound remittance could have gone up possibly 10 times by now.
It means we do not have any strategy in our education system to prepare human resources to support the needs of our 2 main employment sectors, the lifeline of our economy. The illustration below will show how the mismatch between education and employment is impacting our economy. Let's take the example of an unskilled labour working in the Middle East earning BDT 15,000 per month and a skilled person from a neighboring country working in Bangladesh as an "expert" probably earning BDT 400,000.  Now let's do the math to see how many Bangladeshis need to send remittances to pay for 1 expert from another country working in Bangladesh.  If a Bangladeshi worker working abroad earns BDT 15,000 per month and stays in substandard but free accommodation, spending the bare minimum on food and other basic needs, he can possibly send BDT 10,000 to Bangladesh for his family. And a person who is coming here as an expert, who is given all the luxurious facilities provided by the employer (including accommodation, transport, etc.),  is able to send his  fully salary to his home country.  So, if 1 Bangladeshi worker abroad sends  BDT 10,000 per month and an expert working in Bangladesh is paid BDT 400,000 per month (400,000/10 = 40) then at least 40 Bangladeshis need to work abroad to be able to pay the salary for 1 expert. So, if we have 500,000 so-called experts working in Bangladesh, how many Bangladeshis need to work abroad in inhuman conditions to pay these 500,000 experts? Perhaps, the remittance that we receive from overseas employment is not enough. Of course we all know that all the expenses incurred for experts working in Bangladesh are not properly reflected in the outbound remittance accounting system. That's really shocking but sadly that's the reality.
As stated in the earlier section, our government and parents are spending significant amounts of money to ensure access to education for the youngsters of Bangladesh. However, due to a mismatch between supply and demand on one hand, our employers are not getting appropriately qualified people for their needs and educated youngsters are not getting suitable job opportunities because of the irrelevance or poor quality of education they have gained from our system.
Making education and industry relevant
Education and industry are the two pillars on which a nation achieves social and economic growth and prosperity.  In the context of Bangladesh, the gap between the two sectors must be filled to accelerate and optimize all-round development. Bangladesh is faced with the complex issue of imparting knowledge which is industry-relevant without losing its social moorings.  The moot point, therefore, remains how to link these two sectors to create practical synergy that in every sense can bring forth incredible results and is sustainable.
It is the era of disruptors! The world over, research, innovation and technology are propelling a new age thought process, changing the way trade and business are done.  Consequently, global economies have turned volatile and each day consumerism gets a new marketing package.
At this juncture, we need to contemplate whether industry is supported by skilled manpower to take forward their agenda in a new milieu.  Are new graduates coming out of academic institutions employable and industry ready? If not, where lies the gap between industry expectations, demands and worthiness of curricula of educational institutions? These are moot questions posed by both the industry and education sectors. Education is paramount for social and economic development, and here the situation in Bangladesh augurs well for it in terms of manpower potential.
Though educational institutions may claim to follow global standard curricula, yet industry feels the crunch of quality candidates approaching them for jobs.  Therefore, it is imperative to link careers to education through aggressive initiatives, adopting comprehensive curricula which are well-integrated with relevant soft-skills such as communication skills, particularly in English, critical thinking skills, analytical skills, team working, etc. which are fundamentals for the work place.
In order to achieve these there is a need for industry leaders and educationists to drive an effective master plan that is mutually beneficial as well as student centric.
The only way forward is a reciprocal association between educational institutions and various industry sectors such as Readymade Garments, IT, Telecommunication, Agriculture, Supply Chain, Banking and Finance, Stock Markets, Infrastructure Development, Pharmaceuticals, Energy, Consumer Goods, Media, Retail, Food and Beverage, Hospitality, Aviation, Health and Social Care.  Having said that, these sectors are not constant, with the technological development particularly of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is opening new dimensions and raising the potential of the industry, creating more avenues for jobs and at the same time putting lots of jobs under threat as well.
In the context of the global job market, AI has spawned a number of game changers in the industry such as logistics and distribution, where various applications of AI spanning transportation, inventory checks, scheduling and even freight coordination have increased efficiency in the manpower intensive industry.  Healthcare is another sector that has witnessed dramatic change with the application of AI covering clinical and non-clinical areas including research and telemedicine.  Marketing too will be made more relevant when the next generation marketing kit will be equipped with AI, setting new benchmarks in the industry. Some of the readymade garments factories in Bangladesh have started using robots which are considered more efficient.  It means 3 million workers in the readymade garments industry whose jobs could be at risk with further development and adaptation of AI and robots.
Challenges in shaping the curriculum and delivery standard
 The challenge of shaping the curriculum according to industry needs and delivering that in the classroom by focusing on application of learning is a real challenge for Bangladesh.  These two are the main reasons for the employability gap, despite great concern and focus for more than a decade.  Understanding why it happens is essential to solving it. There are a number of reasons why in most cases our graduates are not considered fit for purpose:
a. The content of the curriculum is not aligned to industry needs. Curricula are in most cases focused on theory, rather than application..
b. Lack of awareness among students and parents while selecting their academic path. Often students select their academic path without considering the scope for employment and their ability to study that subject. Decisions are rather influenced by peers, relatives, cost of study, etc.
c. Traditional teaching methodology and no set standard for teachers.
d. Lack of focus on English language and overall communication skills.
e. Lack of monitoring of the standards of delivery. The number of academic institutions has increased significantly at all levels during the last decade without much enhancement of monitoring capacity.
f. Inability of educational institutions at all levels to successfully simulate the changing work environments of the 21st Century which require behaviors and attitudes ranging from self-determination to critical thinking, from logic and reasoning to self and intellectual discipline.  Even if individuals have intelligence and skills, they are unable to succeed in the modern work environment.  
Way out….
The employability gap can be quickly and effectively addressed with great solutions which are available for each of these issues.  It will take a concerted national effort to make the needed changes in time though. We owe it to our current and future generations to make this effort for their sakes as well as that of the entire country. The following are some of the areas for immediate attention, which could help us to emerge from the current situation:
- Set occupational standards based on industry needs at least for the major sectors
- Introduce competency and work-based curricula
- Introduce strong quality assurance mechanisms at all levels
- For tertiary level qualifications, 'examinations board' can be introduced with representation from industry and other universities to ensure checks and balances.
- Based on resources and capacity, private universities should be given a quota.  It seems private universities currently have unlimited capacity and they can recruit any number of students.
-An annual external audit mechanism can be introduced for private universities for each subject.  The auditor should have the mandate to review the following areas:
a. quality of infrastructure where the qualification is delivered b. quality of the resource person c. quality of the curriculum d. quality of the assessment - with random access to scripts, which will mean that the university will need to retain the exams scripts for a certain time e.  talk to the students for a general impression about the standard of the University.
- Industries and educational institutions need to have a platform to engage in dialogue to understand the ever-changing  needs of employment
- Universities and vocational awarding bodies must review and update their curricula periodically to make sure that they meet the needs of national and international job markets.
- Wherever possible, the curriculum to be endorsed by the relevant industry association periodically.
- Focus on soft skills
- Reform English language syllabuses at all levels and introduce some international benchmarks for English and all four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking).
- Some employment related subjects need to be introduced in Madrasha (including Qaumi) curricula.
As a developing nation we have many challenges and we have made significant improvement in certain areas as well.  However, as a passionate promoter of quality education, I feel education is the root solution to the majority of challenges that we face. Every year about 20 million youths are entering the job market in Bangladesh and the majority of them cannot get into their desired fields because of lack of skills and competencies.  Youths with no job or irregular jobs could be dangerous for any nation.  Despite the significant challenges I strongly urge our policy makers to look into education as a number one priority for the next 3 years. And I am absolutely convinced that if we can fix the challenges around our education system, it will be easier for us to fix the rest too. A task force can be formed to agree an action plan for the next 3 years to make sure that we are able to introduce an international standard education system from the fourth year. If needed, we should not feel shy about inviting some of the international education providers to come to our country with their expertise so that in the short term we can learn from them and in the long term increase our own capacity to introduce a globally competitive education system in Bangladesh.  Our neighbor, Malaysia, has become one of the popular international study destinations during the last decade or so and now attracts students from all over the world at all levels. I strongly believe that we have now reached a stage where we should be brave enough to go for some step-change approach for our education system.

(Shahin Raza is Country Manager - Bangladesh, Cambridge Assessment International Education, which is a part of the University of Cambridge, UK. He is Managing Director, EduCan International which has the mission of creating opportunities and changing lives.
He is former Regional Development Manager, Pearson Education and former Head of Professional and Educational Qualifications, British Council, Bangladesh.
E: shahinreza74@hotmail.com)

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