The education ministry has not sought any special budget allocation for the fiscal 2021-22 to recover the learning losses and other damaging impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country's education sector.
Learning losses and a stark digital divide are what have been the outcomes of the long-time closure of educational institutions amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Experts fear this would ultimately result in an increased number of dropouts besides the damage already caused in the education sector.
The government has not yet taken any significant initiatives to resolve the issue of lack of digital devices and the high cost of the Internet for which thousands of students could not attend the online classes during the pandemic closure.
Md Mosharraf Hossain, additional secretary (Budget and Audit) of the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, told The Business Standard that they have not proposed any special allocation in the FY2021-22 budget.
Even a project titled "Covid-19 Response and Recovery plan" has failed to function fully although it was introduced in May last year.
Md Ashrafuzzaman, joint-secretary (Planning) of the primary and mass education ministry, told TBS that they just started the activities of the project, which will continue for more than two years.
The government closed all educational institutions last year because of Covid-19 and has been operating online classes, but a large number of students have not been able to participate in these classes due to a lack of digital devices and the high cost of the Internet.
Education experts have repeatedly urged the government to allocate a special budget to recover students' learning losses, to minimise the digital disparity and to check dropouts, but the education ministry and the primary and mass education ministry paid no heed or took no plan as such.
Md Mominur Rashid, additional secretary (secondary and higher education) of the education ministry, told The Business Standard that they have no plan to provide digital devices and financial help to students and that is why they did not seek any special allocation.
"It is a big decision – helping students and their families, and distributing digital equipment. Only the prime minister can make such a decision," he said.
An education ministry official, wishing anonymity, told TBS that they had submitted a plan to the finance ministry for providing smartphones to all university students, but the ministry rejected it.
An official of the ministry termed the education ministry proposal "unrealistic". "It could propose providing digital devices to insolvent students, even the needy ones at the secondary level. But it sought phones for all university students – rich and poor," the official said.
Professor Dr Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, told TBS that they had sought budgetary allocation like the ones in previous years.
"We are operating online classes, assignment evaluations and other activities. We bear the expenses from our regular funds. We have no plan to provide digital devices and increase the amount of stipends," he said.
In the current fiscal year, Tk66,403 crore was allocated for the primary and mass education ministry and the education ministry: Tk24,940 crore for primary and mass education, Tk33,119 crore for secondary and higher education, and Tk8,344 crore for technical and madrasa education.
The Campaign for Popular Education (Campe) on Monday placed a 17-point charter of demands, including 20% budgetary allocation for the education sector, with a view to recovering the education losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of their other demands are – provision of at least TK250 as stipend per month to pre-primary, secondary, higher secondary and technical students and allocation of special fund to introduce mid-day meal for the marginal community students.
Campe Executive Director Rasheda K Chowdhury said, "The government must provide special funds to save the country's education sector as it is one of the most vulnerable sectors in the country. We are on the brink of a generational catastrophe. So, we must recover from such a vulnerable situation."
Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University, told TBS the learning losses and dropout rate will be severe if the schools remain closed further.
"The students have already suffered huge learning losses. Most of them could not attend online classes last year. Five months of this year have already passed too. So, it will be tough to recover the learning losses," he said.
"I have proposed identifying the poor students who have little chance to return to the school. It is necessary to form upazila level committees to distribute the funds. The funds will be used for buying digital devices and for family expenses," he said.
"It is also equally important to take a long-term plan and make allocation to continue communications with students. But it has not reflected in the upcoming budget," he added.