Local Government for Higher Education in Bangladesh

Amit Roy Chowdhury
Amit Roy Chowdhury
12 Min Read
General Meeting, Higher Education Support and Expansion Project, held at Betaga Union Parishad premises to celebrate its ten years anniversary on 2 April 2022

It was an amazing experience for me that day. Betaga Union Parishad was celebrating its 10 years journey of an Education Aid Project. The Union Parishad (UP) explored a wonderful idea to help poor learners pursue their higher studies. The lowest tier of Local Govt Institution is actually known here in Bangladesh as Union Parishad. If we mean honestly any people-oriented bodies functioning at the grass roots level; that concept should definitely apply for such local government (LG) units. They can create endless opportunities for imperative changes in lifestyle. The society can achieve its collective goals faster than we can predict, if these resources are prudently exploited. Not only that, the community can even put the nation a way ahead to fight inequality and ensure inclusive growth. Many of our LG giants are closely monitoring such innovating practices with a bit surprise. The way priorities are picked up from the Ward meetings and put into effect, thereby, can be replicated elsewhere in the country. The policy of decision-making, implementation, citizen participation, transparency and above all, the trust of the stakeholders are the driving indicators of this parishad; that promise to meet many of the SDG challenges and make it an institution with a difference. Projects adopted for women empowerment and higher education won huge appreciations from both inside and outside the country. Even an organization like The World Bank acknowledged such glorious initiatives taken by a section of underprivileged people living in the coastal district of Bagerhat to the south-west of Bangladesh.

Post-Covid economy, European war alongside unstable regional politics have added extra impetus towards generating domestic growth at macro level. The efficacy of the govt. is badly needed to fight back any adversaries. This sort of resilience doesn’t grow overnight. That is why we require, first of all, quality education, determination and on top of everything patriotism. No denying, we failed to fulfil the conditions of a just society even though the nation state, with such lofty ideals, emerged through a pool of blood. Not that it was beyond our capacity. But the reality is – we could not succeed whatsoever the causes are. The idea of self-reliance has gone through many twists in new world order. In fact, a renewed structure of civilization is evolving through mutual cooperation. The purpose of globalization is sharing skill and experience, and in fact, searching for better life. World class education is presently considered as the best tools for desired changes in society and acquiring such knowledge and skill can be the most effective strategy for development today. The size of our young population, if skilled, is an asset to this nation; if not, it will become a liability. In case, we fail to identify such catalysts, we must pay for it a heavy toll. We can’t deny that our society is carrying some inherent divides in history and culture, through the ages, contributing to such deep-seated damages. Again, the faster we become rich, the wider the inequality expands. This is exactly the reason for which the global call for development remains inclusiveness. Contemporary demands are actually fixing our destination. Education has now become the most powerful investment. The quality education should be promoted. In tune with the global voice, the idea of participation developed in such a remote locality, the said Union Parishad, in other words, the society itself, remains vigilant so that no potential student drops out due to poverty. It’s not the govt., rather the community, ranging from the industrialists down to the day labourers join hands to raise funds.

The fabric of logic appeared to be well-woven. There is indeed some honesty. The larger portion of educational facilities are spread out in the rural areas. But the infrastructure is reportedly poor. We’ve reasons to believe that weak facilities along with unskilled teachers happen to be a part of greater negligence. It is actually an age-old indifference to mass education. Many of the institutes lack science stream. Even if they have, the learners get little scope to go ahead with their study. Because science has an inextricable relation with private tuition. Thus comes the vital question of financial ability. Neither merit nor aptitude, simply the capacity of the guardians matters. Gradually, education becomes a commodity. A solvent guardian can buy future like any other goods. This short cut route is now embedded in the mindset of the guardians. But another social demand has already surfaced and it is skill. Good scores without required skills is fast becoming irrelevant, because they are meant for exams on the basis of chapters and model tests. Naturally, they are simply useless in the practical fields. The school and college labs have already shed off this vital practices decades back. This social misery demands proactive monitoring. The kind of situation didn’t even escape the attention of the UP’s Standing Committee here related to education.

The UP unit has now extended its development catchment up to schools and colleges. Boundary walls, change rooms for adolescent girls and even academic buildings are being constructed. The UP either uses its own resources or applies austerity measures to collect funds from other sources. Digital connectivity does a marvelous job to bring all stakeholders under a surveillance umbrella. Learners, teachers and public representatives are connected to one another. This system helps all identify their glitches and correct thereby. Exchange of views, information and experience largely benefit targeted institutions and give them a unique scope to practice transparency, accountability and cooperation. The debate and language clubs are running in full swing. None can deny their soothing effects on the society. Not only that, these good practices have potentials to meet new challenges of job market too.

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People of Fakirhat Upazila (sub-district), dwelling particularly in this area, largely live on agriculture. Local farmers usually grow paddy, fish, vegetables, milk etc. They are now engaged in a variety of livelihood options. If we look back into 20 years, there was completely a different picture. Poverty followed them close at heels. They were truly strangers to the elite club of education. Now, they vigorously want a change. This craze for better life may have united them. The vision of leadership inspired them, may be, organized them too. They are pledge-bound to break the conventional circle of production. The new generation wants access to merit-based occupations and don’t want to confine to manual labour. Rickshaw-van pullers, grocers, poor farmers, Teachers, bankers, engineers, doctors, industrialists and public representatives, and all else contribute voluntarily and regularly to run this fund. One retired banker offered to leave his residence in Dhaka city for the intending admission seekers. A rare example of goodwill and empathy once again proved the inner strength of this community.

General Meeting of the Higher Education Support and Expansion Project, Bagerhat, Bangladesh

The management appeared to be transparent and committed. The primary objective of the initiative was to prevent any potential dropout. The participants were active and serious. Discussions rolled on as the situation claimed. Many of them sought avenues how this system can survive. The body language of the people suggested self-confidence. They had already collected more than ten million Bangladesh Taka. They raised the fund on their own; they run it by themselves. A detailed statement of accounts was read out and a copy of that reached everybody. Seven new donors added to the list of sixteen. Each of them contributed 3 lakh taka each. The area of support varies on demand and desire. Sheikh Helaluddin Foundation is one of such donors. The students of medical and engineering are the beneficiaries of this stipend.

The most impressive character of the UP is its Standing Committees. The Members of the committees know what they should do and where they should go. The new generation of students is the instant beneficiary of the system. They can foresee their prospects. So, they are happy. But they are not out of surveillance. Every inch of their engagements come under monitoring net. The stipend recipients must not miss any academic session, lest they should lose eligibility. Not only that, even after course ending, they can’t escape attention of the society. Experience foretells that they join this club again as donors. A sense of citizenship develops in their mindset. They become literally the owners of the society.

I tried hard to drag out the core factors behind such a success of the initiative. The unity and discipline appear to me as the decisive factors that make it different. An indomitable urge for change was triggered. An agile and motivated voluntary team is always ready to help one another. Nothing is possible overnight. The milestones of its achievement only prove determination, integrity and commitment of a community. The leadership as well as the institution sails through scrutiny again and again. As the management survives all the tests, it wins people’s trust. The leadership becomes a symbol of resilience. Only then, many harder goals come easily within reach. And if the leadership affords both insight and patriotism, it creates an edifice of spectacular deeds. This is what exactly happened at Betaga Union Parishad, a rural local government institution in Bangladesh.

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Retired Principal of a government college in Bangladesh
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