The national budget for the forthcoming fiscal 2022-23 will be announced shortly. Can we expect anything different for the education sector in the new budget, especially in a recognition of the impact of the unprecedented pandemic, and support for recovery and revival?
The education budget for the current FY22 comprised Tk71,951 crore for the Primary and Mass Education Ministry, Secondary and Higher Education Division, and Technical and Madrasa Education Division.
The budget was essentially aimed at maintaining and supporting the ongoing education activities with little recognition of the pandemic-induced learning losses from the prolonged school closure lasting more than a year at that point.
We do not know how the budget has been used and what has been implemented. Transparency with updates on progress and reporting to the public is not a hallmark of government operations. The revised budget part of the new budget proposal may provide some partial clues.
The school closure ran into a third academic year when schools closed for a month in January-February this year. During Ramadan, schools ran for shorter hours. They are expected to pick up strides now, but almost half a year of the current school year has passed. A recovery and remedial plan for learning losses are not in place yet.
At the pre-primary and primary levels, roughly a third of the students are enrolled in private kindergartens and similar private, and NGO-run institutions. At the secondary level, the large majority of institutions are government-assisted through an arrangement (called monthly pay order or MPO) to cover the salaries of a portion of the teachers. But, English medium and other private institutions enroll an estimated 20% of the students. In addition, a substantial number, estimated to be a third of all secondary level students are in madrasas (more of them in the Quawmi madrasas and some in the government-assisted Alia stream). For TVET (technical and vocational education and training) and general university education, private institutions serve at least half the students. In tertiary level professional and technical education, again the majority are enrolled in institutions not supported by the government.
Private institutions, that remained cut off from their income source during the long closure, are in a difficult financial situation and some have shut down permanently. What will be the consequences for overall education service provisions in the country if a part of the education services disappears? And what can be done by way of government policy and financial support to prevent this? This should be a concern of policymakers.
Education Watch report 2020 titled "Bringing schools and learning back on track" presented to the government in January this year identified key action points including financing measures. The action points included safe reopening of schools and keeping them open, a learning recovery programme that extends to at least two years, its flexible and decentralised implementation that involves civil society and NGOs, and taking a medium and long-term view of the actions planned.
An expanded Education Watch report based on updated data and analysis is expected to be released shortly. It made two key recommendations. First, implementing a learning recovery and remedial plan urgently and reconsidering the school calendar. A two-year learning recovery plan beyond the current year should be developed and implemented urgently – as an educational emergency measure, it suggested.
And secondly, providing funds for the recovery and remedial plan. The new FY22/23 budget should provide funds for recovery and remedial plan implementation. Support should be available to government and non-government schools based on local assessment of need through local primary and secondary education working groups at upazila and union levels. Support should include teachers' incentives, school budget support, working with NGOs, and recruiting voluntary para-teachers. A reasonable formula should be devised to support non-government schools outside the MPO net, working with the local working groups.
Is it too much to expect that the new education budget will support these necessary steps and not be a rehash of the old?
Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University, chair of Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN), vice-chair, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), and member of the International Advisory Committee for the Yidan Education Prize Foundation.