PERIODICALLY, the topic of low-quality education imparted by some private universities becomes a matter of debate. However, there is a much bigger problem of low-quality education in Bangladesh; namely, the thousands of Qawmi madrasahs across the country.
Low-quality private universities generally target students who are not bright enough to get into the state-funded or better private universities; Qawmi madrasahs are serving (or rather dis-serving) a similar low-quality market composed of lakhs of impoverished rural children. The parallels between the two provide an interesting clue as to how to reform the Qawmi madrasahs, which generally seem resistant to change.
Qawmi madrasas are a remnant of Bangladesh's traditional Muslim educational system. Although, post-1971, they have slowly modernised by teaching in the medium of Bangla instead of Urdu, as well as by including some English and mathematics, they still largely follow the medieval-inspired Dars Nizami syllabus.
Since they are set up as locally-supported waqfs (Islamic property trusts, like mosques), they are self-supporting and completely outside the funding and regulation of the government educational system. Students unable to afford admission, textbooks, transport and private tuition required to attend government schools may often find that their only option is a Qawmi madrasah. Unfortunately, one gets what one pays for: a low-quality education composed of rote memorisation of outdated material, with almost no job opportunities.
In the case of private universities, it is clear how to improve the situation; increasing regulation and supervision by the University Grants Commission to improve quality. Furthermore, the private university market is increasingly competitive, and the under-performing universities are forced to improve or close for lack of students.
Unfortunately for the rural poor, there is no government department regulating and improving Qawmi madrasahs. In fact, the slightest hint of government intervention is enough to stir protest among the legally independent Qawmi madrasah administrators. So the only way to force them to improve is by increasing competition in the market for poor rural students.
Market mechanisms are effective regulators if utilised correctly. The presence of a Qawmi madrasah in any location obviously indicates a population of education consumers (students) whose needs are not being supplied by any government school. This may be due to excessive distance or other costs of attending local government schools. In that case, the appropriate market response is to set up a good quality government school nearby, and to target it with larger than normal quantities of student stipends. If the government were to make such moves, Qawmi madrasahs would soon find their student numbers dwindling. Rational parents would send their children to the better government school which offers better job prospects, provided it is accessible and affordable.
Such a change in the rural education market would not eliminate the Qawmi madrasahs; but it would force them to change and improve, just as they adapted to the post-1971 reality of Bangladesh by introducing Bengali.
Whereas now Qawmi madrasahs are not willing to change, if the government made them compete for their students, they would be forced by the market for students to adopt a more modern and higher quality syllabus. Such an initiative needs to be taken by the government sooner, not later.
Zeeshan Hasan is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.