The need for large-scale investment in education

It is generally understood that a country that aims to provide quality education to its young population needs an investment the size of 6.0-8.0 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) at the minimum. And that investment has to be sustained over years, and, when more demand is created at the higher levels of education, upwardly adjusted. A look at the countries which have ensured the highest quality education at every level and have developed their economies and attained prosperity as a result will tell us that they never compromised with their stand on education and gave the sector the highest priority in terms of public funding.

DU-hallBenjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America maintained that ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest’. For a long time I thought what Franklin meant was a scholarly investment in learning in terms of talent and imagination and a sustained application of skills and aptitude to achieve excellence but while reading a biography of the polymath a couple of years ago, I discovered that he also meant financial investment. Education formed an important part of Franklin’s vision of American Enlightenment, and the University of Pennsylvania, which he helped set up, was one of the many institutions that promoted ‘new-model education’ which has made the country what it is today.  Franklin believed in the need to take new actions to improve education, and public investment was a major driving force behind new actions.

Nearer to our time, countries that are making huge progress in economic development are investing heavily in education. China is a good example which has, for a long stretch of time, maintained a 9.0+ per cent growth in its GDP, of which 8.0+ per cent has been ploughed back into education. There are also countries which haven’t done well with their economies for one reason or the other but have made substantial investment in education and have fared well in other indices of development such as the social indices. Cuba is a case in point. The country had to fight US-led blockade for decades: it still faces embargos of various kinds. But it has achieved food self-sufficiency, universal public health and maintained a consistently high level funding in education, which, in 2008, was 13.6 per cent of GDP. Vietnam, which even a couple of decades ago, was described as a ‘struggling economy’, has, in the last few years, emerged as a key player in East Asian economy. The secret? It invests nearly 6.0 per cent of its GDP in education.

These success stories support the contention of Sir Christopher Antoniou, the 2010 Nobel Prize-winner in Economics, that no nation should hold back from investing in education. ‘Cutting down on education investment because of a temporary economic crisis is short-sighted’, he wrote, ‘Education spending is an investment in our future, and should not be part of the government’s fiscal balance.’

Sir Christopher upholds a common wisdom which our educators, educational reformers and thinkers have always maintained. Rabindranath Tagore, for example, suggested that education should always be a nation’s highest priority. When he visited the Soviet Russia in 1930, he was moved to see the country’s commitment to education, and wrote approvingly about the Soviet experiment in Letters from Russia. But Bengal under British colonialism was not in control of its education, and the British, during their nearly 200 years of rule, never invested in primary education, thus depriving the rural population from access to education.

When Bangladesh was a province of Pakistan, it too had little to say about budget allocation in education. Whatever resources were available to the Center, were mostly diverted to the Western wing.  After the country’s independence, there was high optimism that things would change, and education would receive the priority it deserved. Despite the hardship situation the country found itself—with its economy and basic infrastructures in ruins—the country did its best to pool its resources and support the growing need for education.

The government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman set up a commission headed by Dr. Quadrat-e-Khuda to formulate an education policy. The report of the commission, a marvel of visionary thinking, set out a plan for developing and enriching our education from the primary level onwards. The report also suggested areas where improvements have to be made.

Talking to journalists just after his name was proposed as the Chair of the commission, Dr. Khuda maintained that there shouldn’t be any ceiling to government funding of education. He, of course, like all the other authors and stakeholders of the report, believed that finding was the responsibility of the government.

With Banglabandhu’s death in 1975 and a change-over in the country’s administration, Quadrat-e-Khuda Commission report was scrapped and his vision of education, including funding, discarded. The successive governments concentrated more on infrastructure, defence, agriculture, health and other areas of national engagement. Education received a good portion of budget allocation, but it was never enough to ensure universal access to quality education. It is not even today.  With an allocation that amounts to only 2.4 per cent of our GDP Bangladesh can barely manage the sector on a day-to-day basis, and pay for some much-needed projects such as providing textbooks free of cost to all students in the primary and secondary levels.

Compared to Bangladesh, other neighbouring countries appear to be more pragmatic in their funding of education. Pakistan, for example, spends 2.7 per cent and India 3.1 per cent of their respective GDPs in education. Bhutan and Nepal both are far ahead spending 4.8 per cent of their GDPs in the sector. On a recent trip to Bhutan, I was pleasantly surprised to find even rural children speaking English with ease and showing skills in maths and computing that we can’t imagine in our rural schools. Both the schools I visited had libraries and clear, airy classrooms.

Bangladesh has moved away from the vision of Quadrat-e-Khuda Commission and opened up its education for private sector investment. The English-medium education is wholly operated by the private sector, so are about 70+ universities. There are just about everything—from medical colleges to institutes to fashion and design—that are owned and managed by private sector actors. A debate continues to rage about such large-scale involvement of the private sector in an area which the government is constitutionally bound to look after. But the private sector appears to be here for good. Education, after all, is a marketable commodity and returns are also high. And nothing drives the private sector like good returns and profit.

Meanwhile, while the debate continues, the government has made adjustments and expanded the scope for the private sector to operate under certain rules and regulations. That these are honoured more in violation than compliance only highlights the government’s institutional incapacity to monitor and regulate any enterprise of scale.

Another debate that has been raging for quite some time in the country concerns the quality of education imparted in our schools, colleges and universities. Education has, no doubt, spread. About a quarter of our population pursues some form of education programme, and participation of girls is outstanding. But quality, it is felt, is where we are lagging behind. We lag behind our neighbours, and we lag behind many African countries whose economies are half to one third the size of ours.  The government is complacent, as usual, about its ‘success,’ ignoring the basic fact that without adequate investment, quality cannot be ensured. It is a catch 22 situation: low investment leads to low return in terms of quality; and because of low quality, our graduates cannot provide the drive needed for human and economic development, which in turn means cash remains scarce for investing in education. We have to find a way out.

The way out is difficult but not impossible. The private sector has shown long ago that education could be an area of investment that ensures good return. In fact, the return on investment (RoI) philosophy stipulates investment only when gains are bigger than the cost. The government should take a leaf out of the private operators’ book and, based on their RoI philosophy, make necessary adjustments for a long-term gain. It should also take into account the human capital theory which makes large investments in education a necessity.

The theory implies that knowledge, skills, aptitude, talent, intelligence, wisdom and experience of the people represent a form of capital or wealth which, if properly utilised (‘invested into’), can lead to overall development.  The government has to get out of the groove of regime-time development which is usually five years, but has to take a visionary approach, casting its eyes to a 20-year generational time. If this first act can be accomplished, if the political mindset is changed, it can and has to do the following:

  • Allocate 6.0 per cent of GDP to education, may be in phases, but without long gaps between the phases
  • Begin the investment regime with the country’s primary education, extending, over time, to secondary, higher secondary and tertiary-level education
  • Take directions from the 2010 National Education Policy which, among many other things, proposes to raise primary education to class VIII and secondary to XII, eliminating the higher secondary level
  • Make a serious effort to unify the three separate streams of education
  • Invest in teachers’ salaries, training
  • Invest in infrastructure, libraries, laboratories, playing fields and co-curricular activities.


The list will be long, but what is needed is political will. Once it is there, resources can be mobilised and a new journey can begin.  We, as a nation, are quite capable of that.

By Syed Manzoorul Islam,  Professor, Department of English, Dhaka University. (

Courtesy: The Financial Express.