Three years ago, the then president of Uruguay, José Mujica, travelled to Berlin to meet Chancellor Merkel. She had already been in office for 10 years and was well accustomed to receiving Third World leaders seeking monetary assistance to contribute to the development of their countries. If she thought she was about to meet another such leader, she was in for a surprise.
As the two leaders sat down, José Mujica began to speak with the aid of an interpreter. He spoke about various problems his tiny South American country was facing and then, looking straight at the German chancellor, he said: “Frau Bundeskanzlerin, I have not come here to ask for money because I do not think money is the solution to my country's problems. What my country needs to do is provide its young people with world-class modern education, technology training and scientific knowledge. Your country excels in this regard. Help us by sending German teachers and scientists to my beautiful country to train our young people in modern education.”
Chancellor Merkel must have been moved by this unusual request from a head of government. She immediately sent out an appeal to all retired teachers, trainers and university professors in Germany to volunteer. Within days, ten thousand experts volunteered to spend various periods of time in Uruguay to share their knowledge and expertise. President Mujica clearly found an ingenious way to enhance the standard of education in his country, thereby addressing a challenge that every developing country faces today.
“Only the educated are truly free,” said Greek philosopher Epictetus 2,000 years ago. These words have never been truer and their significance never been as universally recognised as now. Countries all over the world, from South Africa to South Korea, are investing heavily to educate and train their citizens.
In the last two decades, Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in providing primary and secondary level education to the children and young people of the country. Its partnership with UNESCO has paid great dividends. The literacy rate among young people is comparable to that of many middle-income counties, and this achievement has significantly helped Bangladesh in its eligibility to gain the UN-recognised status of a developing country.
However, the country has not been able to link its education system with employability in the modern world. This is particularly so in the rural areas. Lack of vocational training facilities and expertise among teachers and trainers in English, computer skills and modern technology means hundreds of thousands of young people are unable to enter the job market after finishing their education.
A number of recent studies, including one by the World Bank, have concluded that Bangladesh must find ways to modernise its Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to sustain its ongoing economic growth in the medium term. Some of those studies suggest that as the demand for unskilled labour diminishes worldwide, unless Bangladesh is able to equip its migrant workers with technical and vocational skills, a significant drop in the remittance earning would be likely in the near future.
Despite resource constraints, many developing countries like Uruguay are finding diversely ingenious ways of imparting skills on their workforce for both domestic and overseas markets. Philippines, for example, already has 25,000 registered nurses working in the UK. It is estimated that the UK may require up to 70,000 qualified overseas nurses when it leaves the EU. Philippines has taken note of that. It has already invited its senior nurses in the UK to return home for a period to train the local nurses in British ways, so that when the time comes, the Filipino nurses have the edge over nurses from other countries to fill in the void.
Bangladesh's challenge in modernising its TVET sector is twofold. Firstly, its budget allocation of about 12 percent of its total budget size is barely sufficient to maintain the mainstream traditional education. A substantial increase in the budget to give a boost to the TVET may be unrealistic. The massive financial injection that the TVET needs is simply not there. Secondly, the country has a dearth of well-qualified vocational and technical education trainers, a legacy it inherited from the colonial education system as indicated by Shashi Tharoor in his recent book Inglorious Empire. A substantial increase in suitably qualified trainers is essential.
It is suggested that for Bangladesh to overcome these seemingly insurmountable problems, it needs to look towards its citizens living in the West. Take the case of the UK, for example. There are over 700,000 Bangladeshis living there, and the vast majority of the adults are either self-employed or in skilled or highly-skilled employment. Being highly appreciative of good quality education, their interest in improving the education standard in Bangladesh is acutely demonstrated by the fact that they have created hundreds of Education Trusts covering almost every part of Bangladesh.
I recently attended a meeting organised to form an Education Trust for Fenchuganj Upazila in Sylhet. The meeting was attended by about 40 people, and within 10 minutes, a pledge of 35,000 pounds (approximately BDT 42 lac) of donation was made by the attendees. This sum went up to 100,000 pounds within days, and the organisers are hoping to double that by May 13, 2018 when they celebrate the launching of the Trust and much more afterwards.
This is an illustration of the capacity of these Trusts to generate capital, and their combined worth is likely to be tens of hundreds of crores of taka. The figure would be astonishingly high if similar Trusts formed by Bangladeshis in America, Canada, Europe, Australia and other countries are added to it. If the government of Bangladesh facilitates the use of these resources in modernising its TVET, the cooperation from these Trusts is likely to be overwhelming. The government would be well-advised to seriously consider forming Public Private Partnership (PPP) with these Trusts to achieve expansion and modernisation of its TVET sector. Indeed, Bangladesh's PPP ethos falls squarely within the principles of these Trusts.
Furthermore, a José Mujica-style call, not to any foreign governments, but to the over two millions of its own citizens living in the West to spend periods of time in Bangladesh imparting the skills they have acquired through education, training and working in advanced economies, is likely to have a stupendous response. This would go a long way in reducing the gap that exists in having a good supply of high-quality TVET trainers.
A further step Bangladesh needs to take is to actively involve City & Guilds of England, a global leader in skills development, to elevate its TVET sectors' standards to the international level. Unlike Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lankan governments have already benefited hugely by having partnerships with the City & Guilds, who have several of their offices in these countries. The involvement of British-Bangladeshis in TVET training should pave the way for a strong link between City & Guilds and Bangladesh.
The time has come for Bangladesh to tap into its resources abroad to develop its human capital at home in order to sustain its forward march. The country can ill afford to miss such an opportunity.
Najrul Khasru is a British-Bangladeshi barrister, part-time Tribunal Judge and Chair of the Nursing Council's Disciplinary Committee in the UK. He is a Founder Trustee of Fenchuganj Education Trust (UK).