A DEBATE is swirling around which type of higher education Bangladesh should follow. General or technical? A high rate of unemployment among university graduates compared with their less educated peers has triggered it. However, linking education directly to the job market assigns a monetary value to it. Looked at this way, madrassah education has a lower value. I would argue that while quality general education has an intrinsic value, vocational education is career-oriented.
A tendency for most of our commentators has been to highlight the demand side of the equation, a factor liable to fluctuate with market conditions. The supply side must also be considered for a holistic approach.
Education for knowledge evolved on the back of literacy. Literacy gave people the ability to express themselves where communication is a by-product. It is, therefore, safe to assume that literacy and communication are positively correlated. Literacy is widely used as a proxy for educational attainment in population census.
Education ideally should groom one to assume the duties of a responsible citizen. For this to happen, the qualities of inquisitiveness, analytical skills, and, above all, judgement are to be imbibed. A developed sense of judgement subsumes ‘moral fibre’ — the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Religious studies at school coupled with parental guidance serve this purpose well. Discipline is also best inculcated in the young.
The above factors make an individual a contributing and valued member of society. Apart from a broad-based education, formative influences, when healthy and constructive, are the key.
While the reasoning clearly shows the value of a good education, no economic value can be imputed to it. I also do not favour foisting rigid demarcations of science, commerce and humanities as early as Class IX. It limits the horizons and potential of a child to the cusp of discovering the world.
By and large, career choice stares at students after completing the higher secondary education at which point authorities may introduce an aptitude test. While some may aspire to join the military, some other may opt for dentistry. Where career choices are so well-defined, a non-professional education makes no sense. Similar is the case for architecture, veterinary science and physiotherapy. For a student aspiring to join the civil service, a degree in humanities or social sciences is, however, no hindrance. The same is the case with receptionists or call centre agents where the incumbent picks up proficiency on the job.
There are grey areas — computer programming, for example. Baristas have been known to enter the field after attending boot camps.
Professional education became necessary to train doctors and barristers who are highly skilled and are held to a high standard by society. The trend was copied by other respectable professions. Side by side, vocational education developed to train electricians, lathe operators and the like. Austria, Germany and Switzerland are paragons of vocational and technical education. Trainees start as early as 14 or 15 . Only a minority of students opt for university.
The trio goes so far as to train hair-dressers and cooks. This admirable tradition is century-old. A close collaboration between polytechnics, industry and the accreditation bodies are a distinguishing feature. This recognises the fact that the employment market is segmented and multi-layered and the paths are many. Moreover, the digital revolution has binned many jobs while inventing new ones. Continual learning and adaptation are the way forward.
Success in securing and holding down employment depends on the right blend of education, traits, skills and experience. Unfortunately, Bangladeshi students have limited scope for acquiring the latter two. Structured internships are an option. Another is to tag young employees with senior professionals in a mentorship arrangement. Cooperative education, unheard of in this part of the world, is a blend of theoretical study and short bursts of practicum. Professional qualifications add another feather to the cap. Such steps will hopefully quash negative perceptions held by employers about the new generation.
Raihan Amin is visiting faculty at University of Asia Pacific.
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