Bangladesh is falling behind, with technical education still remaining somewhat neglected when countries across the world are gearing up for the upcoming fourth industrial revolution (4IR) by building future-ready workforces through the spread of technology-based education.
Even though policymakers, including the high-ups in the government, in their words always emphasise the need for spreading technical education in the country, government initiatives to this end are still insufficient, education experts have said.
And whatever programmes have been initiated in this regard are moving at a snail's pace.
The 4IR will accelerate the rate of disruption in jobs, with technologies, such as robots, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things, taking over every human activity, thus leading to automation and subsequent joblessness.
The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, 50% of all employees will need reskilling due to adopting new technologies. A third of the essential skills in 2025 will consist of technology competencies not yet regarded as crucial to today's job requirements.
To face the potential future challenges and tap into the opportunities garnered by the 4IR, South Korea has imparted formal technical and vocational education on 96% of its workforce within the age bracket of 19-24 years.
The ratio is 52% in the USA and 75% in Germany, states the National Education Policy (2020) that stresses the need for hastening the development of vocational skills, adding that in India also about 5% of the workforce within the same age group have received formal vocation education.
But, in Bangladesh students' enrolment in technical education is still less than 10%, although the government has set a target to increase the enrollment rate to 30% by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
Projects in slow lane
The Technical and Madrasa Division of the Education Ministry has been working on 10 technical education projects but none of the projects has made expected progress.
A project named "Establishment of 329 Technical School and Colleges at Upazila Level" was initiated in January 2020. In more than two and a half years, the authorities could not yet select sites for the institutions.
The objective of the project is to create facilities for the introduction of one technical subject from Class VI to Class VIII, SSC (vocational), and short training courses and thus expand vocational education and training.
Project Director Sayed Masum Ahmed Choudhury told The Business Standard that they would start construction work once they find suitable sites for the project.
In the first phase in 2014, a project was launched to establish 100 technical schools and colleges in 100 upazilas. So far, only 70 institutions have been opened as the project tenure has been extended thrice.
On the other hand, a project was launched in 2018 to establish polytechnic institutes in 23 districts. The project was supposed to be complete in three years, but after failing to meet the deadline the authorities have sought another three years to complete it.
The "Capacity Building for Existing 64 Technical Schools and Colleges" project initiated in 2019 also could not be implemented within the stipulated time frame of 2021. The authorities have sought a three-year extension to the tenure of this project as well.
Project Director Subrata Pau told TBS that the project has attained 35% progress thus far.
According to a 2019 study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), some 7,500-8,000 new technical jobs pop up in the country every year.
Even though around 20,000 fresh computer science and engineering graduates enter the job market annually, over 80% of them failed to meet the recruitment standards set by the employers, said the study.
Unable to find domestic talent for mid-level skills such as testing, business analysis, and project management, Bangladesh's manufacturing industry is being forced to hire technical people from neighbouring countries at significantly higher wages.
The ADB report pointed the finger at outdated and theory-focused teaching methods, limited laboratory facilities, and limited laboratory time.
There are 500 government and private technical institutions in the country. Of them, 49 are government polytechnic institutes.
Some 220 private polytechnic institutes hold classes in rented buildings with no appropriate laboratory facilities.
In 2017, the Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) asked 184 institutes to move to permanent campuses. The same directive was issued back in 2013. But, the institutes have not done anything about this as yet.
The public polytechnic institutes have inadequate teachers. There are 900 permanent teachers and 1,30,000 students in those institutes and the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:144.
The All India Council for Technical Education, a regulatory body for technical education in India, however, says the teacher-to-student ratio should be 1:15. This ratio is even lower in Singapore.
Engineer Abdul Aziz, president of the Technical Education Consortium of Bangladesh, told TBS that a lack of strong supervision from the government's side had caused the quality of education in many private polytechnic institutes to fall far below the required standard.
"Some private institutes are doing better than the government ones. However, a good number of private institutes only have signboards. They get the attention of potential students by advertising the technical board's approval," he said.
He also urged strong monitoring to ensure timely implementation of government initiatives to expand technical education.
Professor Md Habibur Rahman, vice-chancellor of Dhaka University of Engineering and Technology, told TBS that the country needs quality technical education. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible to cope with the future global society, he added.
Professor Mohammad Rafiqul Alam, vice-chancellor of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology, asked for a brisk expansion of technical education as technological development across the world is taking place rapidly.
"We must build the future generation with technological knowledge. So, it must be started from the school level. Quality and skilled teachers must be recruited," he added.