The education sector budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year that is coming to a close in a few weeks has been described as a "pedestrian."
Presented last June, soon after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world and Bangladesh, the budget did not anticipate the implications of the crisis for the education system. Clearly, the depth and duration of the pandemic that continues till now with no end in sight was not foreseen.
As it has turned out, the pandemic has caused the greatest havoc on health, economies, lives, and livelihoods of people in a century since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.
In Bangladesh, the damage to the education system has surpassed the year-long disruption caused by the Liberation War in 1971.
The Tk66,000 crore education budget for the current year (recurrent and development for the two ministries of education) was essentially aimed at maintaining and supporting the ongoing education activities with some regular development projects aimed at infrastructure improvement and capacity building.
Education experts have pointed out basic weaknesses in respect of the quality of instructions resulting in poor learning outcomes for students.
They also mention inequality in opportunities and outcomes and the exclusion of disadvantaged populations based on geography, economic status, ethnic identities, and personal attributes, such as disabilities. These have been pre-existing problems in the system and have been aggravated further by the pandemic.
A revised budget for the current year, which will be part of the new proposed budget for the FY22, will be presented in Parliament on 3 June.
Press reports indicate that the revision will add a modest amount of over Tk1,000 crore to the allocation for the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education and Tk500 crore for the Ministry of Education.
We do not know how the current year's budget is being used to make a difference in the pandemic response and preparations for it in the coming year.
Transparency is not a distinctive feature in the budget-making and decision process in education (and other sectors). One cannot find periodic progress reports on budget implementation and the justification, purposes, and magnitudes of the revision either on the websites of the ministries or through their public briefings.
A whole school year (2020) has been lost. Almost half of the current year (2021) also is about to be lost, even if we optimistically assume that a third wave of the pandemic will not strike us and some regular educational activities will start in June.
We can be reasonably sure that whenever schools re-open, we cannot expect to return to the old routine all over the country all at once. We also can be sure that we will have to live with the coronavirus effect for a long time
We can be reasonably sure that whenever schools re-open, we cannot expect to return to the old routine all over the country all at once. We also can be sure that we will have to live with the coronavirus effect for a long time, perhaps forever, in respect of operating and managing educational activities at different levels.
The government is in a quandary about what can be done to restart regular educational activities safely, including when and how, and then continuing with a workable loss-recovery strategy. From a budget perspective, not a great deal can be done in the current year that ends in June.
The aim now has to be making the right provisions in the new FY22 budget. Now that we have some idea of the depth and scope of the crisis in education we confront, the current year's activities for the remaining short time can be preparatory so that we have a head start in the new year.
The challenges, in broad terms, are four-fold. a) To reopen institutions safely with appropriate health and safety measures, each upazila and institution needs to make coordinated plans involving health complexes and health clinics for testing, contact-tracing, isolating, and treatment as needed.
b) Within central guidelines, each upazila and institution – primary, secondary and tertiary – needs to make their own plans involving parents, teachers, managing bodies, and non-government organisations working on education and plan at least a two-year recovery programme. Elements of this plan, according to education experts, should be assessing where students are (all will not be at the same level), how they can be helped, shortening and rationalising the curricula, recasting exams, supporting teachers, and combining technology-based and classroom learning.
c) Effective implementation and management of the reopening and recovery have to involve the stakeholders beyond the education authorities and necessary financial support and incentives have to be provided.
d) The reopening and recovery plan has to be melded into a longer-term education sector plan in line with the SDG4 education agenda for 2030.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University