On Tuesday, when Finance Minister AMA Muhith reportedly said that there are peons in government offices who hold Master’s degrees, many were stunned. However, the minister was not wrong.
There are, in fact, many peons and support staff in government offices who have Master’s degrees, and have graduated with good results. I have also met support staff members with Master’s degrees in private offices as well and they are working at a very low salary.
The minister’s comment came in response to a journalist who said there are journalists with postgraduate degrees who start their journalism career with only Tk8,000 a month.
So what’s the problem?
Perhaps without meaning to, the minister revealed, by his very comment, the poor state of higher education and employment in the country.
When someone takes a job for a peon position -- which is not considered very desirable in our society, even without a degree -- it says that our graduates are not doing very well in their professional lives.
It says that our graduates are not getting worthy jobs despite having invested a significant amount of time and money into completing their graduation; it tells us that we need to think about higher education reform and job creation.
The minister may have only recently admitted as much, but our graduates have been struggling to get jobs for quite some time now.
Statistics show that the number of unemployed graduates is on the rise.
If we allow the rate of unemployed graduates to continue to rise and do nothing about it, we are setting a disaster in motion for our country
In January, a report by the Dhaka-based Centre for Employment and Development Research said that in 2016, 16.4% of young people in Bangladesh with graduate and post-graduate degrees were unemployed, compared to 10% in 2010.
Ironically, only 7% of those with secondary school certificates were unemployed in 2016.
Among the graduates who do have jobs, many have to compromise their salary demands.
I have heard of teachers at some kindergarten schools with post-graduates degrees who earn no more than Tk10,000. Some sales and marketing jobs offer even lower than what the kindergarten school teachers earn.
It is rather baffling to note that many hawkers, tea-stall owners, and CNG auto-rickshaw drivers earn more than what some of the fresh graduates earn at some companies.
I have even heard that some graduates’ salaries have actually gone down in recent years due to a job crisis in the market.
I cannot figure out how our businesses can pay graduates less than the income of some informal sectors workers like hawkers or tea-stall owners.
A possible explanation is that employers are essentially exploiting workers, given the situation in the job market where there is an excess supply of graduates but few job openings.
Degree doesn’t signify aptitude
There is also a flipside to this story. I have heard from business owners and managers that they are not getting adequately-skilled graduates.
Bangladesh’s RMG and other industries are often forced to hire people from neighbouring countries as our graduates are not up to the mark.
This is a reflection of a mismatch that exists between university education and industry needs.
University professors and our policy-makers need to work on this together; to settle on a curriculum that prepares students according to industry needs.
We need to conduct a formal study to understand why our universities have been failing to produce skilled graduates. The study will most likely reveal a number of factors, not just one, but it will help to identify the extent of each.
Potential factors or problem areas are curriculum, teacher quality, etc on the university’s side, and problems with lack of job creation, state of infrastructure and industrialisation, among others.
The immediate answer might be to focus on technical education. We need to examine whether we need so many post-graduates. Many youths can be better employed, with a higher salary, if they have technical education.
The role of policy-makers
The finance minister and other policy-makers cannot forsake their responsibilities either.
Before the minister said there are peons in government offices with Masters’ degrees, he should have paused and done some soul searching first, to figure out why, under his watch, this is still happening.
The minister and other policy-makers need to sit together immediately to reexamine their policies about higher education, job creation and industrialisation of the country. They should establish a committee consisting of all stake-holders including university teachers, industrialists, human resource managers, and so on, and they need to sit regularly to find out a solution.
If we allow the rate of unemployed graduates to continue to rise and do nothing about it, we are setting a disaster in motion for our country.
Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently working in the development field.