The Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is about quality education. The difference between the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs in terms of education is that, while MDGs talked about ensuring enrolment and completion of primary education of all children, Goal 4 of the SDGs emphasises ensuring of inclusive and quality education for all and promoting of lifelong learning. The targets of Goal 4 include ensuring completely free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education for all girls and boys; access to quality early childhood development; ensuring equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education; increasing the number of youth and adults with relevant skills substantially; eliminating gender disparities in education; and ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable. They also include ensuring all youth and a substantial proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy; that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development; building and upgrading education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive; and increasing substantially the supply of qualified teachers.
Education is critically important for economic growth and overall development of society. Education directly enhances human capital and contributes to economic growth. The 7th Five Year Plan of Bangladesh envisages to achieve 8 percent GDP growth rate by 2020. At the same time, the government’s other vision documents project for a 9-10 percent growth rate in GDP by 2030. In particular, Goal 9 of the SDGs aims to double the share of manufacturing in the GDP for the LDCs by 2030. If not doubling the share, even if Bangladesh wants to increase the manufacturing share substantially from its current level of around 18 percent, the country needs to invest quite a lot in developing its human capital so that it can meet the demands of the industries. Other goals of the SDGs highlight the importance of quality education for a better quality of life too. However, there are genuine concerns that the current education system in Bangladesh is unable to meet most of the targets mentioned above.
Despite the fact that Bangladesh made considerable progress in gross-enrolment in primary education for both genders, the country is seriously lagging behind in ensuring quality education for all. Because data for many of the targets related to Goal 4 are not available, we have studied a few available indicators which are consistent with the goal 4.
If we consider the average years of schooling as an indication of the status of education of any country, during the years between 2010-2015, this number for Bangladesh was only 5.1 which was higher than Pakistan (4.9) but lower than India (5.8). However, Bangladesh was far behind Sri Lanka (10.9) and some of leading Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia (10.1), Thailand (7.7) and Vietnam (7.8).
Two important indicators related to the quality of educational infrastructure are “percent share of trained teachers in total teachers in primary education” and “pupil-teacher ratio in primary education”. During the years between 2010-2015, in the case of trained teachers, Bangladesh (53 percent) performed very poorly compared to India (77.2 percent), Pakistan (83.7 percent), Sri Lanka (79.1 percent), Malaysia (97.2 percent), Thailand (100 percent) and Vietnam (100 percent). In the case of pupil-teacher ratio, though Bangladesh (39.8) performed better than Pakistan (42.8), it performed worse than India (32.5), Sri Lanka (23.8), Malaysia (11.9), Thailand (16.1) and Vietnam (19.4).
Regrettably, Bangladesh is among the bottom in the list of countries in the world with the lowest ratio of public expenditure on education to GDP, which is only 2.1 percent. This ratio is 3.7 percent in India, 5.4 percent in Malaysia, 4.3 percent in Thailand, and 5.3 percent in Vietnam. This is one of the reasons why the private spending on education as a share of household monthly expenditure is much higher in Bangladesh compared to those of other South Asian countries. According to the latest available Household Income and Expenditure Surveys of five South Asian countries, the share of private expenditure on education in the average monthly household expenditure in Bangladesh is around 5.5 percent, 2.6 percent in India, 4.8 percent in Nepal, 2.5 percent in Pakistan, and 1.9 percent in Sri Lanka. This suggests that the responsibility of education expenditure heavily falls on households in Bangladesh, and the government’s role is yet to be ideal.
It is important to mention here that Bangladesh’s education sector also suffers from huge disparities. The disparities are observed between regions and between rich and poor. There is a high degree of inequality with respect to access to quality education as poorer people and people in remote rural areas have limited access to higher education and quality educational institutions. The existing education system is also not very conducive to developing a strong base in the education sector, as quality, access and opportunities vary considerably across the English medium, Bangla medium, and Madrasa systems, as well as between public and private educational institutions.
What needs to be done? Some major reforms in the education sector are much warranted, which should include improvements in the quality of institutional mechanism in the education sector, modernisation of curriculum, substantial increase in the supply of trained teachers, harmonisation among different educational systems, reduction in disparities and unequal access to education by improving and expanding educational infrastructure across regions, and putting due emphasis on secondary and tertiary education, vocational training, and skill development. For this, there is a need for a substantial increase of the ratio of public spending on education to GDP from its current level of 2 percent to at least 4 percent in the coming years, and making such spending more efficient.