The figures released in the World Bank's Human Capital Index underscore four challenges for Bangladesh on the human capital front.
Firstly, there is an overall problem of quality in the entire education sector. We have been happy to spend on buildings but not on quality teachers and bureaucracy and mastan-free educational environment. Our research budgets remain miniscule and this shows up in our absence in global higher education rankings.
Secondly, there are great disparities in access to human capital opportunities. Islands of quality and opportunity are surrounded by oceans of mediocre opportunities. There was a time when education was the vehicle of social mobility. Now, quality divide in education has become the great driver of inequality.
Thirdly, there is a problem of our inability to utilize our human capital potentials. The World Bank report cites that girls' human capital is better than boys but what is the picture in the labour market? Bangladesh continues to have a very low rate of female economic participation. So gender parity in education will not be meaningful if we cannot engage them subsequently in society as human capital. Adverse social norms and poor sense of security and access to justice stand as barriers for women to fulfil their human capital potential.
All of these problems have been with us for a while. But Covid-19 has dealt another fatal blow and introduced a fourth level of crisis. A whole generation of boys and girls face uncertainty in their education future. In the coming months, there will be an immediate crisis of millions of primary and secondary students who will need catching-up support having missed over 6 months of classes. Digital solutions, while laudable, are not reaching the majority.
There are a lot of discussions on health and economic impacts of Covid-19, but its colossal damage to children's education is not getting comparable attention. Even quantitative assessment is not possible like the ones done by OECD or others, a deep understanding of the situation should be enough for policymakers to respond to the problems and take steps accordingly.
Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman is the executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC)