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The education system in Bangladesh is facing several problems relating to access and participation. Gross enrolment rates in pre-schools in the country is estimated at 13%, with 14% for boys and 13% for girls (2010 estimates, UIS n.d.). Efforts to increase access to primary education have been successful during the last few decades and the net enrolment rate has increased from 60.5% in 1990 to 93.5% in 2010. In particular, female enrolment has seen a positive trend and the net enrolment rates increased from 69.4% for boys and 50.8% for girls in 1990 to 87.6% for boys and 94.5% for girls in 2006 (Planning Commission and UNDP 2009) and 98.2 for girls in 2010 (BANBEIS 2010).

Despite government initiatives to increase secondary enrolment, less progress has been witnessed at this level. In 2010, the gross enrolment rate reached 51% with 48% for boys and 55% for girls, which is lower than the regional average of 59% the same year. In addition, the figures mirror those obtained in 2002 and diverge only slightly from that of 47% in 1999 (UIS n.d.). Similarly, the enrolment rate in tertiary education in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in the world (World Bank 2009) and in 2009, it was as low as 11% (World Bank n.d.(b)). Out of the total number of students at public universities (excluding the National University) only 31% are female while 69% are male (BANBEIS 2011). 

Despite improvements in female enrolment at primary level, gender imbalances still exist in the Bangladeshi education system. In particular, girls from poor families are still more disadvantaged than boys. In fact, girls often have considerably lower attendance rates often due to helping out at home or parents being protective and keeping girls at home rather than letting them travel long distances to school (UNICEF 2009). This may be exacerbated by the traditional view that girls do not need an education. As a result, girls’ achievement and competency levels are low, resulting in high drop-out and low completion rates (BANBEIS and MWCA 2005). Other likely reasons for the gender imbalance are the traditional view of women as ‘homemakers’, insufficient policies to ensure women’s security at and on the way to educational institutions and the lack of employment opportunities for women often due to discrimination and early marriage (Rahman 2012).

Moreover, poverty and child labour are issues in need of urgent attention in Bangladesh. Public primary schools are meant to be free, however, hidden costs such as uniforms can make public education inaccessible for many poor families. With approximately one third of the population in Bangladesh living below the poverty line (UNESCO 2012), children are often needed to help support the family. According to a report by the NGO Arise, 3 out of 10 urban children are involved in dangerous jobs, despite educational institutions being free and located nearby (BANBEIS and MWCA 2005)

Finally, disadvantaged children (such as children with disabilities or from ethnic minorities) are particularly vulnerable to exclusion from educational opportunities (UNICEF 2009). For example, less than 1% of all schools are reported to have facilities accessible for students with physical disabilities and studies have pointed out that girls with disabilities are at high risk of emotional, physical and sexual abuse (Asim 2011).

There are several factors impinging upon quality basic education in Bangladesh. Student achievement is far below the national targets, which has been attributed to factors such as the teaching-learning process, the school environment, poor teacher qualifications and a lack of teacher motivation. Approximately 24% of primary school teachers are completely untrained and teachers have been found to be passive and not interacting enough with the children. At pre-primary level, only 20% of teachers had some form of ECCE training in 2006 (IBE 2006). Rote learning is the dominant practice, with little emphasis on developing practical or analytical skills (UNICEF 2009, BANBEIS and MWCA 2005).

Another issue relates to contact hours, which are about half the international standard of 900-1000 per year. About 90% of schools are double shift schools in order to accommodate the growing number of students. This means that some grades attend school in the morning while others attend in the afternoon, which significantly reduces the already low number of contact hours as prescribed by the Government (UNICEF 2009, IBE 2011).

Access to quality school facilities is another crucial issue. Many classrooms are overcrowded, unequipped, unsafe and dirty with poorly functioning tube wells and insufficient access to water and a lack of toilets. Although the number of toilets in schools has been increasing, there were still approximately 5% of schools without toilets in 2008 and another 14% of schools with only one toilet. On average, in primary schools, there are 150 pupils to each toilet (UNICEF 2009, BANBEIS and MWCA 2005).

At tertiary level, issues affecting the quality of education include the poor quality of teaching staff, traditional teaching methods with little interaction between students and teachers, insufficient facilities with a lack of residential halls and seats for students, outdated and inadequately equipped libraries and laboratories, corruption and nepotism, lack of internal and external quality assurance measures, weak linkages between university and industry and limited internet access (Islam n.d., World Bank n.d.). Moreover, universities are struggling with what is commonly known in Bangladesh as ‘session jam’. Session jam refers to the inability of public universities to produce graduates according to the schedule, due to lengthy closures as a result of politically-motivated violence. Session jam is a result of the active and sometimes violent political culture and political parties being closely linked to the university administration, teachers and student unions. Recurrent disturbance, strikes and closures mean that students may graduate several years later than scheduled and that they often turn to private universities instead (Monem & Baniamin 2010).

Finally, the TVET sub-sector is facing several crucial issues such as insufficient linkages with the labour market and lack of quality assurance, with the main hindrance to improvement being inadequate resources (MoE 2011).

According to UNESCO Institute of Statistics, the Government of Bangladesh spends approximately 2.2% of GDP and 14.1% of total government expenditure on education (2009 estimates), which is a relatively low figure for the region (UIS n.d.). According to BANBEIS, the distribution between the sub-sectors is as follows: primary and mass education (32.7%), secondary and higher education (52.5%), university education (7.8%), technical and vocational education (1.2%), administration MOPME (0.8%), administration MoE (2.2%), development project from revenue (MoE) (0.6%) and other subsidiary services (2.1%) (2008-09 estimates, BANBEIS n.d).

Education is financed by internal sources and by loans and grants from development partners. The main internal sources are government contribution, student tuition fees and private contribution. Public primary schools are fully funded by the Government while only about 3% of all secondary schools are managed and fully funded by the Government. Privately managed secondary schools (97% of the total) are supported by the Government’s subvention fund. Research has suggested that there is significant discriminatory fund allocation within secondary education sub-streams as well as in primary, secondary and tertiary education (UNESCO 2007UNESCO 2012).

Universities depend on the Government for funding since tuition fees at universities are very low and only make up approximately 1% of the cost per student, which barely covers the administrative costs of collecting the fees (UNESCO 2007UNESCO 2012). In addition, universities spend most of the funds on salaries and establishment of new departments to respond to the demand, while little or no funds go to research (Monem & Baniamin 2010). 

There are several active policies, plans and strategies trying to address current issues in Bangladesh. These include: the National Education Policy (latest available version from 2010), the Outline Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021: Making vision a reality, the Operational Framework for Pre-Primary Education in Bangladesh (2008), the Strategic Plan for Higher Education 2006-2025 and the National Skills Development Policy (2011).

The National Education Policy has as a main aim to identify key challenges and goals in implementing the extended primary education cycle (from 5 to 8 years) and the reduced secondary education cycle (from 7 to 4 years). It highlights priorities such as: preparing the new curriculum; textbooks and teacher guidelines; organizing related teacher training; and reorganizing management and administration. The policy also emphasizes access to education for different ethnic groups, students with physical disabilities, street children, girls and children in remote areas, with the ultimate aim of ensuring access to primary education for all children regardless of gender, socio-economic conditions and ethnicity by 2018  (MoE 2010). In view of the generally low enrolment and completion rates in combination with high drop-out rates in secondary education, ensuring universal access to eight years of primary education will be a considerable challenge.

The Outline Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021: Making vision 2021 a reality, presents several strategic issues in education development in the country. These are: administrative decentralization and in particular for secondary and college education, community management of local educational institutions to ensure accountability to the local community, increased investment and cost sharing in order to address crucial issues and needs in education, integration of technology in education to cope with the demands of the 21st century, rejuvenation of sports and inclusive cultural activities and teacher development for improved quality of education (Planning Commission 2010).