Once dubbed an economic “basket case” by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Bangladesh has made impressive strides across a host of socio-economic development indicators. From successfully cutting down fertility rates since the 1980s, slashing infant mortality rates and promoting gender parity in both primary and secondary education, Bangladesh has come a long way. However, despite these advances, the country’s macro achievements in tertiary education leave much to be desired. In order for the nation to effectively develop its human capital in light of the increasingly complex and skills-oriented modern economy, the tertiary education sector will have to play a critical role.

Higher Education: The Asian Story

As the gravitas of Asia grows in magnitude on the global stage, so too does its output of university graduates. Since an important portion of Asia’s role in the global economy comes from its knowledge contributions, this is being reflected in the landscape of its higher education. By the year 2020, China is expected to account for 30% of the world’s university graduates between the ages of 25 and 34.[8] India, another emerging Asian powerhouse and the continent’s third-largest economy, will add approximately 300 million people to its labor force, which will rival the entire population of the United States.[8]

Within South Asia itself, there is a rising demand for higher education. However, this demand is not being adequately met. There are approximately 30 million people enrolled in tertiary education across the region, but the unmet demand is estimated at three to four times that number.[9] As South Asian economies have progressively become more technologically advanced, a skilled and knowledgeable workforce becomes crucial for economic success. Historically, the demand for higher education has been met by state-sponsored universities. The increasing demand has opened the door for the private sector to step in and absorb some of the shock experienced by the bulk of public universities. This enables a larger portion of the population to access higher education and at the same time, competition from the private sector results in drastic quality improvements. Most countries in the South Asia region have successfully developed a robust network of private universities.[9]

Bangladesh, on the other hand, represents an interesting case. While its achievements with the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) do somewhat paint a rosy picture when it comes to fertility rates, mortality rates, and gender parity in primary and secondary education, the accomplishments of the tertiary education sector are not as impressive.

The Bangladeshi Case

Tertiary Education Institutes (TEIs) in the form of universities and tertiary colleges are the main vehicles providing higher education in the country.[1] A changing demographic and social landscape has resulted in a growing demand for tertiary education in Bangladesh. However, this is contrasted by the fact that local TEIs have a long way to go in providing quality education that meets international standards. Bangladeshi universities are not performing well in any reputed international ranking system, which has become increasingly important both locally and internationally as an indicator of quality.[1]

This not only hurts graduates’ employment prospects globally but also hints at a ‘graduate-skillset versus employer-demand’ mismatch. According to the Center for Development and Employment Research, youth unemployment is the highest amongst those with university degrees.[4] A recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) revealed that university graduate unemployment stood at 38.6 percent.[6] Despite this, demand for tertiary is further fueled by the phenomenon of “credential inflation”, wherein jobs that previously did not require degrees now do require them, even though the work itself has not changed much.[4] Even within TEIs, there are striking disparities in the attendance of females as opposed to males, and those from wealthy versus poor backgrounds.[1]

Underlying this somewhat depressing portrait are a number of key issues that have given rise to this situation. In order to effectively improve the state of tertiary education in the country, these factors will have to be properly tackled through sound policy and effective management.

TEIs Do Not Ensure Quality Education

The biggest problem lies in the fact that TEIs still employ a very old and rigid education system, where interaction is primarily one-way between student and teacher. Teaching at these institutes primarily involves rote-learning, which induces passivity of students and does not promote or encourage critical thinking and soft-skills – all of which are essential skills in the modern job market.[1]

FIGURE: Skills Employers Feel Graduates Should Train More On. / Source: Graduate Tracer Studies in the respective sectors (2016, 2017, 2018)

Additionally, inadequate and outdated teaching facilities greatly impede learning in STEM fields-a problem pronouncedly experienced by students enrolled in polytechnics. Moreover, student-teacher ratios tend to be very high across TEIs.[1] The absence of essential multimedia equipment such as projectors and speakers prevent lecturers from effectively communicating in large classrooms. Lessons do not emphasize the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, soft skills, and communication technology.[1] A small handful of private universities have adopted these into their curriculum but the vast majority of TEIs have yet to do so.

The supply of qualified teachers is another major concern. Teacher vacancies are quite high in tertiary colleges-an issue particularly pronounced in district towns. The government utilizes a centralized teacher recruitment system, which naturally results in time lags, sometimes up to 2 years. The selection is further crippled by high rates of turnover within this time period. Private universities are largely unregulated, and consequently, there are doubts cast over the transparency of the teacher recruitment process.[1][3] Additionally, quality assurance is another key ingredient that has been missing from TEIs. At present, it is still in its early stages. However, the Bangladesh Accreditation Council Act in 2017 was published to push quality assurance.

Research Output is Low

Research activities have been underfunded for the majority of the country’s history. Despite a healthy pool of qualified academics with PhDs–many from the United States–being present in the country, typically concentrated in the prestigious public universities, research grants as a portion of public funding have been less than 1 percent.[1] Inadequate lab equipment and digital facilities also hinder research. Consequently, Bangladesh’s research output is less than those of other South Asian countries, most notably India and Pakistan.[1]

Although research has fared better in the 1995-2005 era as opposed to previous periods, there still exists little industry collaboration and private sector participation in promoting research. Bangladesh ranks at 131 out of 140 countries for university-industry collaboration in R&D.[1] There exists a lot of scope for knowledge and innovation-driven industries such as agriculture and medicine to collaborate with universities, however, this is still in its early stages.

Access to Tertiary Education is Not Equitable

As the demand for tertiary education has been expanding rapidly, the private sector is playing a key role in absorbing this additional demand. Despite this, Bangladesh’s overall gross enrollment rate (GER) of 16 percent in tertiary education as of 2016 is much lower than that of neighboring countries India (27 percent) and Sri Lanka (19 percent).[1]


FIGURE: Gross Enrollment Rate, 2016 / Source: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Institute For Statistics (UNESCO UIS) database.

The tertiary college sector accounts for more than 60 percent of all enrollments and the National University–through its various affiliated colleges–provides education to an estimated 2,300,053 students.[1][4] Despite this figure, graduates of the university are failing to find employment in the job market.[5] Approximately 46 percent of National University graduates require a minimum of 3 years to find a job.[5]

Even within the TEIs, the wealthiest are disproportionately represented, with females at a distinct disadvantage to males. From 1993 to 2011, the post-secondary net attendance rate percentage point difference between the top and bottom income quintiles increased from 29.24 percent to 39.80 percent.[7] In addition, children from wealthier backgrounds also perform better in school, leading to more developed cognitive abilities in contrast to those from poorer backgrounds.[7] Poor performance in school usually results in poor performance in higher education.[3]

This disparity carries on to tertiary education, further widening the gap in performance between the rich and the poor. In terms of gender, while there has been tremendous success in promoting gender parity in the primary and secondary level, net enrollment rates in tertiary education for females stood at only 26.24 percent as of 2015.[10] Dropout rates for the post-secondary level were also higher for females at 24.60 percent versus 16.83 percent for males.[10] 

FIGURE: STEM Enrollment Rates in Tertiary Education / Source: Bangladesh Tertiary Education Sector Review – The World  Bank

Participation in STEM field education is another issue. Only 21 percent of all enrollments are in STEM fields whereas it is 40 percent in India and 28 percent in Sri Lanka.[1] Only 9 percent of all tertiary college enrollments are in STEM fields.[1] A survey from the World Bank revealed that the high costs associated with providing STEM education are one of the primary reasons why colleges prefer to offer courses in humanities and business. 

Not Enough Financing Options

Historically, public funding of tertiary education has not been emphasized by the Government of Bangladesh.[1] Public expenditure on tertiary education as a proportion of the total education budget has lingered around 10-13 percent, but rose up to 20 percent in 2015.[1] At present, there are no national student loan schemes to enable more people to enroll in tertiary education. Funding for tertiary education comes from private expenditure from households. On average, tertiary education costs up to 1.26 times more than higher secondary education.[1] Scholarships and waivers are the primary forms of financial assistance offered to students. The main source of income for TEIs are the tuition fees it charges to enrolled students. The current budgeting system does not allocate more resources on a performance basis, but rather incremental additions to a fixed-line of items.[1]

Many students borrow money from relatives to finance their tertiary education.[1] Roughly 17 percent of college students borrow money from relatives or non-governmental organizations, males students from rural areas being the chief borrowers. This figure rises to 30 percent for students enrolled in polytechnical education.[1] This is an uncertain means of financing, as the relatives of these students are themselves not financially secure.[1] It is possible to postulate from this that there is a large number of students who cannot attend higher education due to a lack of financing options.

Concluding Thoughts

With 37 public and 82 private universities in Bangladesh serving approximately 1.3 million students, it is apparent the demand for higher education is experiencing a rapid expansion.[2] The returns to higher education have consistently hovered over 20 percent in the country.[1] This highlights the demand for graduates with skills that tertiary education is supposed to impart. The biggest problem that TEIs will have to face is the issue of ensuring quality education.

In light of the growing complexity of the modern local economy, the flourishing private sector and the imminent rise of the digital economy, technical, problem-solving, critical thinking, and soft skills will pave the way for greater labor productivity and economic growth. If TEIs fail to deliver, unemployment will continue to soar amongst graduates, and the growth of the economy will be impaired. The key to a flourishing economy will be a technically skilled workforce with highly developed cognitive abilities that can tackle the challenges of modern trade.

Shahreem Ahsan, Trainee Consultant at LightCastle Partners, has prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]


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