The plea and expectations from civil society and education stakeholders for an education rescue and recovery plan to offset the impact of the Corona pandemic has not been heeded. New initiatives to confront the corona pandemic impact on education are largely absent in the education budget for FY20-21.
The proposed total education budget for FY20 is Tk 66,401crore or 11.6 percent of the national budget. The development part of the budget is Tk 23,245crore or 11% of the development budget. These amounts reflect a small nominal increase from the current year's education budget of Tk 61,000 crore, barely offsetting the annual inflation rate of 5.6%. The percentages have remained about the same at just over 11% of total budget and about 2% of GDP. The largest education sector allocation is Tk. 5,040 crore for the Fourth Primary Education Development Program which began in 2018; the bulk of it going to infrastructures.
Secondary education has the largest sub-sectoral allocation at Tk 33,117 crore, followed by Primary and Mass Education with Tk 24,138 crore, and Madrasa and Technical Education Division with Tk 8,345 crore.
The education budget follows the usual pattern of expenditures of maintaining and operating the current system. The opportunity has not been taken to initiate a move towards a "new normal," addressing the weaknesses of inequality and quality in the system which has been aggravated by the effects of the pandemic. Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) had urged in an open appeal to the prime minister to allocate at least 15% of the national budget directly to the education sector.
Any new or creative initiative presumably had to be designed and proposed by the education authorities, the three Divisions under the two ministries of education and the various directorates. Have they failed to come forward with new initiatives to confront the crisis and have opted for continuing in a business as usual mode?
A post-pandemic recovery plan could emphasise teaching and learning, preventing dropout and irregular attendance, and extra classes (offering support to schools and incentives to teachers for this purpose).
Expanding the scope of school meals, stipends, health checks and mentoring of students were recommended by CAMPE. Investments were urged for making online and ICT-based learning a regular feature in schools. ICT infrastructure, connectivity, broad-band access, availability of devices such as tablets, ed-tech support and ed-tech training for teachers are necessary for this purpose.
As important as the budget allocation is its proper use, which has continued to be a major concern. Effective implementation would require decentralised planning and management of primary and secondary education in each upazila involving local administration and close collaboration with NGOs and CSOs. The special initiatives would call for responsive and flexible action at the school and community level that can be challenging for the usual bureaucratic ways and practices.
As a way of being responsive to specific circumstances of students, families and communities and to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of measures taken, one suggestion was to make a special allocation of Tk 5,000 crore to be used at the upazila level – Tk 10 crore on average for an upazila – to involve NGOs to support students' learning through school-based plans. These could be designed at school level to prevent dropout and irregular attendance, offer extra lessons and counselling for lagging students and incentives for teachers to take on these tasks. These plans could be reviewed and approved at upazila level by an education recovery committee involving local government, education authorities and NGOs. These decentralised plans could be implemented with the help of the education NGOs. Such an initiative is apparently too far out-of-the box for the education authorities.
The private sector institutions, from the kindergarten to universities, have become a major component of the education system. There are legitimate concerns about the quality and management of their services, as there are about the public system. A significant loss in services and number of institutions in the private sector as a consequence of the crisis would only add to pressure on the public system. A support strategy for private institutions, probably through a subsidised loan scheme through the banking system, could also be a way to bring the private institutions into a public accountability system.
The education budget allocation priorities and amounts should be a subject for deliberation in the parliament. Can the parliamentary discussion of the budget proposal make the budget more responsive to and cognizant of the crisis situation?
Dr. Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University. The views expressed are his own.