After passing the Secondary School Certificate test in 2011, Rubel Hossain worked at a workshop to get hands-on experience in refrigerator troubleshooting. He later got into the Bangladesh Institute of Technology, a private polytechnic institute in the capital's Mohammadpur area, to get a diploma.
He thought this degree would help him build a good career.
But a certificate was the only thing he got after finishing the course. His practical as well as theoretical knowledge and skills were still poor.
"I hardly attended lectures. I crammed some answers the day before examinations. I was just present in the practical tests and did nothing," Rubel told The Business Standard.
Like Rubel, there are many private polytechnic institute students who got their diplomas without proper practical and theoretical knowledge. They finished their programmes and received certificates after four years, but their knowledge and skills did not reach the level required by employers.
The country's private polytechnic institutions are in a shambles. Most of them have no laboratories and are operating in rented flats. There is a big shortage of skilled teachers. The lack of a strong monitoring system by the government has aggravated the situation.
The Bangladesh Institute of Technology, where Rubel passed from, is housed in a rented building as it has no permanent campus. It has some classrooms, but its two laboratories exist only in name.
Apart from their academic duties, teachers also have to do clerical work. Two of the teachers were working as telephone operators at the reception desk when The Business Standard paid a visit.
The situation is almost the same at the Institute of Science and Information Technology in Tejgaon. It does not have a permanent campus and hence, holds classes in rented facilities.
Public institutes in sorry state too
Government-run polytechnic institutes are also in a dismal state. The acute shortage of teachers badly hampers academic activities. As a result, thousands of students complete their courses without getting adequate knowledge and skills to survive in the job market.
Kamal Uddin, who earned his diploma in civil engineering from Bhola Polytechnic Institute, has been working in Singapore since 2018.
"When I arrived there, I had very little practical knowledge. My employer also assumed it and trained me for six months. I had to work with manual labourers. I felt ashamed," he told The Business Standard.
"It was very unpleasant when my employer underestimated me. But the lack of skills was not my fault because my education institute did not provide me with the required practical knowledge. Because of the poor quality of education that we receive, we are incompetent in foreign markets," explained Kamal.
Severe teacher shortage
The country has 52 public polytechnic institutes. There are 900 permanent teachers and 1,30,000 students in those institutes. The teacher to student ratio is 1:144.
The All India Council for Technical Education, a regulatory body for technical education in India, says the teacher to student ratio should be 1:20. This ratio is even lower in Singapore.
There are only 10 permanent teachers for 2,100 students at Patuakhali Polytechnic Institute. The teacher to student ratio there is 1:210.
Md Hasan Mahmud Kamruzzman, principal of the institute, said, "We are trying to provide a world-class education for our students. But we sometimes fail because we have an inadequate number of teachers."
"How can we teach such a large number of students when there are so few teachers?" he said.
The teacher to student ratio is a bit better at the 387 private polytechnic institutes in the country, but they have other underlying problems.
The Bangladesh Institute of Technology has six teachers and over 500 students. Of the six teachers, only one has a permanent position.
Altaf Hossain, a teacher of the institute who is also working as a telephone operator there, told The Business Standard that students have to do almost nothing to get a diploma.
"The students pass the first three semesters automatically because we control these semesters directly. We can hand the final test questions to the students before the examinations so they pass easily. In the practical examinations, the students just have to be present. We manage everything else," he explained.
A diploma engineering student has to complete eight semesters. The first three semesters are controlled by the respective institutes. Examinations for the next four semesters are conducted by the Bangladesh Technical Education Board.
However, question papers are leaked almost every year, and practical examinations are a mere formality. The students only need to be present at the exam venues.
Dr Md Abdul Baten, an engineer and the principal of Institute of Science and Information Technology, told The Business Standard that his institution has good connections with officials of the technical board and Dhaka Polytechnic Institute.
"This makes everything easy for us. We can even manipulate the practical test scores of the students. We control everything as I was the chief of the Chemical and Food Department at Dhaka Polytechnic Institute. A student can get a certificate if he or she attends some lectures and follows our guidance," he added.
Employers in trouble
The technical incompetence of students has made it difficult for employers to recruit skilled workers. They often have to hire a foreign worker if the right person for the job is not found in the domestic market.
Engineer Abu Noman Hawlader, managing director of BBS Cables Limited, told The Business Standard that his company usually hires skilled manpower from India and other neighbouring countries as the Bangladeshi technical education institutes cannot produce qualified diploma engineers.
"The diploma engineers from government polytechnic institutes are of medium quality. We hire them and then make them fit for the job through practical training, but it is not really our job to do that," he said.
When asked about diploma engineers who are from private polytechnic institutes, Noman said the junior engineers do not have even 5% of the required knowledge.
"Generally, we are reluctant to hire such diploma engineers as they are incapable of contributing to the industry. I have no idea how they get their degrees."
Noman appreciated the government's initiative to expand technical education, saying the government must provide quality education so that students can compete in local as well as global markets.
"It will be unfortunate for us if students become engineers without acquiring the required skill set. In the long run, instead of becoming the country's assets, they will turn into burdens," he added.
Mohammad Khorshed Alam, chairman of Little Star Spinning Mills Limited and Intimate Spinning Mills Limited, faces the same problem. He told The Business Standard that no Bangladeshi diploma engineers have an adequate knowledge of spinning.
"We are always suffering from a lack of skilled manpower, so we have no option but to hire engineers from India. Some polytechnic institutes have introduced textile courses but the final outcome is almost zero because their diploma engineers do not learn anything," he explained.
Lax government monitoring
As many as 220 private polytechnic institutes hold classes in rented buildings with no appropriate laboratory facilities.
In 2017, the Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) asked 184 institutes to move to permanent campuses. The same directive was issued back in 2013 too. However, the institutes have not done anything about this even after six years.
BTEB Inspector Engineer Md Abdul Quddus Sarder told The Business Standard that a lack of manpower is hindering the inspection of the institutes.
"I only have four inspectors. That is why it is impossible to inspect all the institutes," he said.
BTEB officials said the technical board is doing nothing to improve the quality of education in private institutes.
Some subjects, such as web design, drawing and computer-aided design are fully practical. But due to lack of supervision, students of these subjects get certificates without proper practical knowledge, said BTEB officials.
Khorshed Alam, former director of Bangladesh Textile Mills Association, said the government has to make an effort to provide a world-class education to polytechnic institute students.
"We sometimes feel uncomfortable when we have to hire foreign engineers to do work that is supposed to be done by our own engineers," he said.
Director General of the Directorate of Technical Education, Rawnak Ahmed, also admitted that the quality of diploma engineers passing from private polytechnic institutes is very poor.
He pointed out that a shortage of teachers is the biggest obstacle to providing quality education in government polytechnic institutes.
A second shift has been introduced in the academic routine of the public institutes, but the initiative has not been fruitful as there are not enough teachers to do the shift.
"Providing quality education is impossible when there is a shortage of teachers," he said.
Rawnak said his directorate had sent a proposal to the Ministry of Public Administration via the Ministry of Education to appoint 25,000 new staff members, including 10,000 teachers for government polytechnic institutes.
"I hope the proposal will get the nod and will be implemented within a year. We can produce excellent engineers after appointing new teachers," he said.
A study by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics shows that over 80% of the private polytechnic institutions and about 60% of the public institutions were founded between 2001 and 2017.
The study revealed that Rangpur has the highest number of institutions and Mymensingh has the lowest.
BTEB Inspector Quddus said most of the private polytechnic institutes are not producing skilled diploma engineers because they obtained approval of the authorities by concealing many shortcomings.
"Much like the private universities, the investors of private polytechnic institutes set them up for the sake of doing business in the name of providing technical education," he added.
Engineer Abdul Aziz, organising secretary of the Bangladesh Private Polytechnic Owners Association, told The Business Standard that a lack of strong supervision from the government's side had caused the quality of education in many private polytechnic institutes to fall far below the required standard.
"Some private institutes are doing better than the government ones. However, a good number of private institutes only have signboards. They get the attention of potential students by advertising the technical board's approval," he said.
"However, after admission, the students have to do nothing. Only a strong monitoring system from the government can help improve the quality of education in these institutes," added Aziz.