Ill effects of disparities in allocation for education

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A UNESCO research paper prepared with contribution from the BRAC titled, "Global Education Monitoring 2022" released on Tuesday last has focused primary on South Asia's expenditure on education with special emphasis on the role of educational institutions in the private sector. Overall, families have to bear 71 per cent of educational expenses for educating their children in Bangladesh. Education fees in non-government and NGO-run schools are three times higher and in the kindergartens, it is nine times higher.

Now here exactly lies the crux of the problem in education in Bangladesh. The system is awfully discriminatory at the stage of preparing students well enough for a modest career or for higher education. Higher education is even more discriminatory with the private universities and some colleges charging exorbitant fees unaffordable for the majority of families in the country.

While the government primary schools' teaching standard is generally low, the government secondary and higher secondary schools are far better than the average non-government schools. However, some of the educational institutions run privately have to their credit enviable records. But education at this select band of schools and colleges is quite expensive. The same is the case with English medium schools. The better is the quality of those, the higher the charges for study there.

It is at this point, schooling of the overwhelming majority of students ---94 per cent of the total secondary level students to be exact ---in non-government high schools exposes the weakness of the system and the wide gap in standards of education due to disparities in investment. The schools that are managed well, have adequate infrastructure and can recruit qualified teachers from their own finance stay far ahead on all counts. Against such educational facilities, the schools that have hardly any income and almost solely rely on monthly pay order (MPO), which is nothing but a pittance, fare poorly.

It is futile to expect that the MPO is enough to attract qualified teachers for the teaching job. Even before introduction of the MPO, the financial condition of the majority of non-government schools was really pathetic. Today even parents of students in villages are well aware that without private tuition or lessons at coaching centres, chances of scoring high by their wards is very slim. So the commercial private coaching business has spread its tentacles even in the countryside. This has opened up avenues for teachers to have extra income ---albeit the amount is very low compared with the fat sums their urban counterparts amass.

Education in this country has become a commodity, the most coveted kind of which only the privileged can afford. An extraordinary talented student from underprivileged class or community can at times break the barrier but not unless some kind-hearted people come up with financial and other supports. But their number is few and far between.

All this should point to the fact that students from backward communities more often than not fail to realise their potential. Given equal opportunities and environment for learning many of them could pursue education to reap rich rewards. Their plight has further aggravated during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic time in the absence of in-person classes and deterioration of financial condition due to the high inflation respectively. Their parents are struggling to manage enough food to feed the members of their families. Additionally, all educational implements have become costlier. No wonder, one-third of families of students have to borrow money or sell property to pay for their children's education.

It is against such a background, the government is going to introduce the new national education curriculum. But can a half-hearted approach without a major overhaul of the discriminating system bring about the desired result? How can teachers whose quality is suspect and without adequate training take charge of an education system that emphasises knowledge- and skill-based learning? Teachers, many of whom failed to take up the challenge of the earlier structured question-based education ---wrongly named creative system ---are the last persons to do justice to this more challenging teaching method.

Only those teachers who have insight enough and depth of knowledge including child psychology will be able to identify the special talent in each student and nurture it to its logical conclusion. Anyone short of a scholar cannot take charge of this gargantuan job. But who the teachers are there to be assigned to the task?

In case of schools where teachers have to deal with students from poor and backward environment, this will prove to be even a taller order simply because the financial support behind both the learners and the preceptors will be hard to come by. It is because of this, the UNESCO calls for raising government's allocation for education in countries of South Asia where, except Bhutan, this allocation is nowhere near the 15 per cent of the government's total budget. At least it should be 4.0 per cent of a country's GDP, the UN organisation insists. This can to a certain degree, if not fully, reduce the ill effects of socio-economic disparities on learners and bring about equity in educational opportunities.

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