On May 28, various media reported the government’s latest Digital Bangladesh initiative to build 12 new IT parks in various districts at a cost of $201m (about Tk1,600cr). Apparently the rationale is that construction of massive IT parks accompanied the emergence of the multi-billion dollar software and IT services industry in India.
Unfortunately, this initiative to develop the software industry by building IT parks is unlikely to succeed. It is a misconception that a lack of IT facilities is holding back the software industry in Bangladesh.
Software is different from garments manufacturing, where a lack of compliant factory buildings may well be holding back expansion. In fact, the key element of success for any industry is availability of relevant manpower and skills.
Garments has been expanding consistently over several decades for the simple reason that millions of skilled workers have been gradually trained and are now available. On the other hand, a successful, large-scale IT industry requires tens of thousands of university graduates with qualifications that are in short supply in Bangladesh: Computer science degrees and fluency in English. Bangladesh’s IT industry has not developed in the same way as India’s
primarily due to the lack of these two skills.
Why don’t sufficient IT skills exist in Bangladesh? Firstly, there are not enough avenues to study IT at the university level outside of the capital city of Dhaka and the handful of major divisional towns. Given that each of Bangladesh’s districts has an average population of over 2 million, the first thing that should be done to remedy this is to set up specialised IT educational institutes in unserved district towns. This will enable thousands of additional students every year to study computer science without the expense of leaving their home district.
This would indicate that the planning for the new IT parks should include establishment of university-level IT educational institutes as part of each park. Without a feeder IT institute next door, the new district level software parks will have no qualified manpower available to hire.
It is worth mentioning that India spends almost twice the percentage of its GDP on education that Bangladesh does. India’s success is based on more than the construction of IT parks.
Such a big expansion of computer science education at the university level raises the question of whether there will be sufficient science students passing out of secondary schools to populate those district IT institutes.
Only science students have the mathematical training to study software, and the number of science students is continuously dwindling. The reason is primarily poor teaching and poor learning of mathematics throughout the primary and secondary levels, which is evidenced by the high failure rate in mathematics at SSC/HSC exams.
To ensure that there are enough secondary science students, schools need to recruit and train better mathematics teachers. Recruiting better people requires higher salaries for teachers, and more money spent on training them. It is worth mentioning that the government last year initiated a compulsory ICT syllabus at the HSC level, but unfortunately did not make adequate provision for training of teachers. Neglecting teacher training is likely to sabotage any attempt to improve educational standards.
From the high rate of SSC/HSC failure in English, it is apparent that English skills are also lacking in Bangladesh. English is the international language of business, and no internationally competitive IT industry can develop without it. English teaching needs to be upgraded in the same way as mathematics education.
The government should also realise that exposure to English outside the classroom is as important as books and lectures. A simple means to increase exposure to English is to utilise TV cartoons. Indian TV channels are hugely popular in Bangladesh; these days most children learn far more Hindi through Indian cartoon channels than they learn English in schools.
The power of cartoons can be harnessed by a minor regulation of the cable TV industry; only English cartoon channels should be permitted. This simple measure will go a long way towards teaching English to schoolchildren.
English and IT skills can certainly be developed. This will take a big investment in science and English education at the secondary level and a big expansion in IT education at the university and district level.
Informed decisions need to be made regarding what languages children should be exposed to and learning through the mass media of TV. Without all these integrated efforts, building IT parks alone will probably prove unproductive.