Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Global Higher Education: The Forgotten Country

In the discussions about Global Higher Education, one country is often forgotten: Bangladesh. Somehow, it will never feature as a target country for institutions trying to recruit students from abroad, or more surprisingly, for 'Transnational Education'. 

This omission is more surprising when one considers the facts on the ground. Bangladesh has a population (154 million) which is bigger than Russia (143 million) and Mexico (120 million), with 61% of its population within the 15 - 64 year bracket. The country has a huge problem with Higher Education access, with 13% Gross Enrollment Ratio (reports UNESCO/ World Bank).

Indeed, the Global Higher Ed market in Bangladesh seems trivial. OECD reported that it sent 30,000 students abroad in 2011 (dwarfed by China's 729,000, India's 223,000 and even Korea's 139,000). However, this is more a paradigm problem as Global Higher Ed is predominantly seen as students from Global South coming to study in OECD. Students from Bangladesh goes to more diverse destinations, with only 69% going to OECD countries (compared to China's 85%, India's 90% and Korea's 96%), which confounds Global Higher Ed observers. Besides, Bangladeshi students will often stay inside Bangladeshi diaspora in different countries, and the identities get mixed up. Once one gets under the reported data, it is apparent that no one really knows how many Bangadeshi students study in India alone. Similarly, Bangladeshi students going to Malaysia, China, Cyprus, Iran and now Mauritius is a largely unreported trend.

Despite the unusual number of Bangladeshi students that one meets everywhere, Higher Education in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi students abroad get absolute radio silence. Bangladesh makes it to the list of Jim O'neill's Next 11 (N-11) and ticks the box on many parameters where the bigger countries and the BRICs often faltered.  Bangladesh does better in terms of many social indicators, including primary education and female participation in education, than India and Pakistan. It is a relatively stable country than Pakistan, with an upwardly mobile middle class and a largely moderate religious tradition. It has none of India's complex linguistic challenges, and despite hiccups and some terrible leadership, have become irreversibly democratic. It is significant too: It is on the frontier of climate change and Islamic extremism, and yet being one of the moderate Islamic democracies, a test case for a certain model of development. It has maintained a largely independent foreign policy, and managed to maintain a equidistant position from India and China (though successive governments had slightly different emphasis). It gets overshadowed in the region full of large, nuclear and hostile countries, but its relatively stable position itself should work in its favour.

However, the real opportunity of Bangladesh is not about its past but about its future. It has managed to build some very impressive schools and built a large upwardly mobile English speaking democratic middle class in the space of a generation. Middle class Bangladeshi students born after 1990 is so strikingly different from those born before that it should attract research. They are more global than the neighbouring Indians, more entrepreneurial and often has a stronger diasporan network to work with. We lose this perspective when we try to see the world through the usual religion-based lens, but Bangladesh is truly the forgotten country for Global Higher Ed enterprises.

Indeed, I say this because of my first hand experience of the country: I have lived there for two years, built an education business spanning the whole country that served more than 10,000 students, and still has many friends and business associates there. I also taught a number of Bangladeshi students over the years in London, and their enterprise, commitment and ability to deal with the odds never failed to impress. But I also say this for another reason: Because that stint in Bangladesh, where I interacted closely with the upwardly mobile Middle Classes and the social elites, taught me to be global. Unlike India, where the elite is beholden to the West, the World in Bangladesh is truly varied place. The many influences and contours of globalisation, Australian commerce competing with American commerce, Chinese influence jostling with Indian, Japanese scholars talking alongside someone from Iran, is perhaps more visible in Bangladesh than in India. In that sense,  Bangladesh may represent a bigger opportunity for some global institutions than its bigger neighbour does. 





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