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'Bangladesh's new education policy must consider 7Cs'

Apr 20, 2009

Bangladesh government is devising a new national education policy that purports to be in sync with the global knowledge architecture. Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb, editor of Journal of Bangladesh Studies, warns that any attempt at a one-size-fits-all policy will surely be counterproductive.

The present government is designing yet another "new" national education policy. This is indeed timely, especially in a globalising world in which other countries have catapulted themselves into the 21st century by vigorously engaging in "knowledge revolution" and by developing their human resources that are aligned with the global knowledge architecture.

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However, an editorial in The Daily Star (April 12) makes a critical observation; that there have been numerous education policies proposed in the past and that most of them have gathered more dust than the attention of those who "could" and "should" have made a difference. The editorial also appropriately directs the government to look into the earlier documents and translate the recommendations into action.

What was gleaned from the education minister's utterances is that the emphasis will be on vocational training and that initiatives will be taken to stem the dropout rates that currently plague the system. While both issues are important, it would be useful to contextualise them under a broad framework.

Under this framework, seven prerogatives are offered. They are as follows:

Commitment: A very important determinant of any accomplishment in the education sector is the commitment of its various stakeholders. Perhaps the earlier documents had excellent content but failed to gain the commitment of those responsible for its operationalisation. Commitment is not automatic; it must be generated through a programme that is exciting, achievable, rewarding, demonstrates clear benefits, involves the stakeholders, and is measurable.

Beginning at the very top, commitment must be palpable as it is energised, transmitted, and sustained at all levels. It must be built on a shared platform between internal and external stakeholders, including the international parties, policy planners and implementers, local bodies, school management committees, teachers, parents, students and even the ultimate beneficiaries -- the employers. Importantly, there must be a leader or "driver" at each level who keeps the team energised and focused.

Comparability: A question is whether to build the education system from scratch or emulate. The rapid expansion of education systems in the past 30 years in Asia, particularly East Asia, and the ascendance of this region in social and economic status testify to the role of education in shaping the future of a country. Some of these countries lead the world in cross-national comparisons of student achievement.

By learning from the experiences of these countries, it may be possible to leapfrog into an education system that will pay the richest dividends. Finding such a country to emulate should also serve as an effective benchmark. Here emulation means replicating what is possible and adapting what is needed. If a system is emulated, it is important to compare achievements with the emulated system.

Clientele: The education sector must be designed with its main clientele (students) in mind, whom it wants to serve and empower. It should develop appropriate and responsive programmes, processes, and organisation structures that would best be able to deliver. Educational needs and circumstances may vary for different groups, that may require a balancing act between standardisation and customisation of the entire programme. Any attempt at a one-size-fits-all education policy that amounts to force-feeding will surely be counter-productive. The programme must be designed for optimal benefits; access, equity, and costs are other major components that must be considered in designing the programme.

Capacity: One of the biggest stumbling blocks today for the entire education system is its incapacity to conceptualise, create, package, price and deliver educational products and resources to its clientele. Capacity problems are reflected in the poor condition and functionality of the buildings, inadequate ability of the teachers to teach, a decrepit curriculum that cannot even articulate what output it expects to generate, abysmal management systems at all levels, etc. These deficiencies stymie one's imagination as to how the education system has continued to exist under the guidance of various governments and their development partners that have pushed various programmes.

Given the remorseless pace of evolution of knowledge products from a global perspective, proactive capacity must be built among educational planners who are able to sense the rapidly changing needs in the context of a networked global order to make the education system relevant, innovative, and responsive. What is the capacity of the education system to adapt itself quickly to produce human resources in, say, healthcare or information technology that the labour market needs? Clearly, it is vital to build capacity in the following areas – managerial skills, curriculum design, quality teaching, evaluation systems, and research capabilities – to sustain a first-rate education system.

Coordination: To eke out efficiencies, the education system must be integrated in a linked structure in which one sub-system feeds into the next in a smooth and integrated operation to achieve clear and measurable goals. For example, moving a cohort of students through the different levels of schooling is a complex supply chain operation whose effective functioning will determine whether the final products (graduating students) will be able to blend seamlessly into the labour market. Session jams and lack of capacity to accommodate students from one level to the next represent failures of coordination, as do the shifting of examinations, failure to provide textbooks, poor supervision, etc. The most important aspect of coordination is that the sub-systems must work like parts of a machine to keep it functioning. With poor coordination, the machine is rendered dysfunctional.

Cash: The education sector is financially challenged; in fact deprived! As things stand, investment in education in Bangladesh is roughly 2.7% of GDP. Comparative numbers are roughly; Pakistan 2.6%, India 3.2%, Thailand 4.2%, Malaysia 6.2%, UK 5.6% and USA 5.3%. These numbers suggest a link between educational expenditures and the stage of development of a country. Clearly, unless greater financial resources are mobilised and allocated to this sector, the goal of developing needed human resources to fulfill the country's needs will not be achievable. If the government is serious, it must increase the allocation of "cash" to this sector substantially.

Communication: The final piece that ties everything together is communication. How is the system performing? What are the metrics? Who gets to know what so that system coordination is insured? It is imperative that the education system incorporates a system of metrics that arrays the system against defined standards. Such metrics are needed for resource inputs, process indicators, and output goals. Each sub-system (primary education, NFE, secondary education, vocational and technical education, tertiary education, Textbook Board, NAPE, BANBEIS, UGC, etc.) must have its own metrics that should be aligned with super-ordinate metrics to communicate with each other about system performance. To the extent possible, public metrics are also needed as a sort of report card to communicate to the public about the system's achievements. Good metrics should also lead to a system that rewards good performers and punishes bad ones.

Designing an education policy is an arduous task. The desire of the government to come up with an education policy in the next three months is a tall order. Perhaps a little more time should be budgeted to think through the substantive issues.

Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies, USA and president of BDI.

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