President Abdul Hamid appointed 47 members to the new cabinet of Bangladesh this month with Dr Dipu Moni taking over the reins of the education ministry. The former foreign minister brings with her years of experience in the public health and legal sectors. And with credentials from institutions such as Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, University of London and Harvard University, it is with great expectations that we citizens hope for Dr Dipu Moni to efficiently carry forth the responsibilities assigned to her. As the face of a ministry having had both successes and its share of controversies over the past 10 years, she has immense challenges to address—and one hopes that she can do so by understanding the present needs of this sector.
In her first press conference following her appointment, Dr Moni stated that she aimed to maintain the pace of development in the education sector, while suggesting that curbing question paper leaks would be her main challenge. In the past 10 years, the Awami League government has overseen enhanced access to education in rural parts of the country. From initiating free textbook schemes to introducing ICT in classrooms, Dr Dipu Moni's predecessor Nurul Islam Nahid received acclaim in his initial years in office, for prioritising education as a key policy objective of the incumbent party in power. In fairness, the BNP government from 1991 to 1996 started experimenting with some crucial schemes in education, including making primary education mandatory for girls—a policy decision which was enhanced by all successive governments.
According to data of the Unesco Institute of Statistics, the literacy rate in Bangladesh rose from 46.66 percent in 2007 to 72.76 percent in 2016—a figure expected to grow even further in the near future. The Awami League government has successfully increased public education services in the country, but they should also be the first to admit that much more needs to be done still to improve the quality of education across the aisle.
Question paper leaks are a major concern for the new education minister, and fixing it is a prerequisite to ensuring quality education in the country. Following high investments in the ICT sector, Bangladesh has seen stringent and, as most suggest, controversial digital security laws being enacted by the Jatiya Sangsad. Using these legal avenues and technology to curb question paper leaks, rather than misusing these to crush any and all forms of dissent, is a better option and could be a mechanism for the education ministry to limit question paper leaks online. Furthermore, a tri-ministerial committee, comprising of the education, ICT and home ministries, can be set up to investigate and control what is surely a social epidemic in the country.
In my opinion, the root cause of question paper leaks in the country stems from the perception of education as a commodity rather than a venture towards gaining knowledge and enlightening oneself. Past governments have prioritised numbers over value education, and, as such, parents and students have become accustomed to the idea of private coaching as a direct substitute to schooling, using corrupt means to enrol students in schools, and resorting to leaked question papers to yield so-called good results in examinations. As educationists have repeatedly suggested over the past years, this exam-centric nature of education in the country has resulted in the system itself being in such a dire condition.
Therefore, for Dr Dipu Moni, the challenge is not simply to provide leadership when it comes to ensuring increased access to education but also addressing the key issue of changing perceptions regarding what education should entail and why it should be valued.
Like many in Bangladesh, I am of the firm belief that students below grade 8 should not be tested via standardised examinations, which tend to promote rote memorisation from past question papers. But I am aware that hoping for such a thing is utopian, at least in the short run. In 2018, the government took a bold step to ensure that 100 percent of Primary Education Completion (PEC) examination questions are competency-based, and one hopes that this aspect of education reform is stressed upon and invested in by Dr Dipu Moni, her ministry and the primary and mass education ministry.
The education minister should also target acquiring a higher budgetary allocation for the education sector. Educationists have suggested that the ratio of the education budget to the GDP should be increased to six percent; however, over the past 15 years, the ratio has hovered around a mere two percent, a figure which is lower than many Asian countries. While nominal spending on education has gone up over the past decade during the tenure of the Awami League government, with the number of students, academics and institutions increasing, the budgetary allocation has not increased in proportion to either the growth of the overall sector or in adjustment to inflationary pressures.
Another key area of concern is that the political determinants of our public sector have resulted in a high proportion of the education budget being directed towards non-developmental spending—mainly towards increasing teachers' salaries. Whilst ensuring increased salaries for teachers is important, enhancing training of our academics and simultaneously supporting the growth of quality education services demands a higher proportion of spending to be directed towards this sector. Therefore, we sincerely hope that the new education minister can convince her cabinet colleagues and urge the prime minister to look into this issue with greater depth and allow for more direct funds to address the problems of the education system.
Dr Dipu Moni has challenges ahead which are impossible for her to tackle alone, but given her credentials, I sincerely hope that she can, at the very least, kick-start a campaign to change the way education is perceived in the country. Her resume is top-notch, and it is because she has the necessary skills to tackle the shortcomings of the education sector that we expect more from her than the average politician. She helms what is, in my opinion, the most important cabinet portfolio in the country, and if she wants the Awami League to fulfil its electoral manifesto of providing higher standard of education at all levels, then she has the primary responsibility to push for reforms in the education system. Sincerely investing in quality education and striving to improve the system as a whole will ensure that the development of the country is sustainable, equitable and human-capital based.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of economics and international relations, University of Toronto.