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Bangladesh’s ruling party ministers say private schools and universities are responsible for the recent surge in terrorism, which includes the attack on a bakery in Dhaka. Suvra Kanti Das/Newzulu

Dhaka café attack: don’t blame private education for radicalisation in Bangladesh

Many experts and development organisations advocate greater provision of fee-charging for-profit schools in developing countries.

According to the Economist:

Where governments are failing to provide youngsters with a decent education, the private sector is stepping in.

While this view remains challenged – and the United Nations has recently urged governments to monitor and regulate private education providers – for-profit schools and universities are in the spotlight in Bangladesh for a very different reason.

Following the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, the government is accusing English-medium private schools – schools that teach in English, offer GCSE/International Baccalaureate education, and mostly cater to rich urban families – and universities of not doing enough to tackle youth radicalisation.

On July 1, 28 people, including 20 hostages, were killed when seven youth militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery in the Bangladesh capital’s diplomatic zone.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted Western citizens.

Private education blamed for surge in terrorism

The government is adamant that local militants are the culprits. It has focused on the fact that they were educated in the country’s elite schools and universities.

Three of the attackers studied at schools that provide Western education and guarantee English proficiency, a key marker of affluence and status in Bangladesh.

Yet young victims Abinta Kabir, Tarishi Jain and Faraaz Hossain are also graduates of an elite secondary school, the American International School Dhaka. This highlights a deep split in Bangladeshi society.

Soon after the attack, Bangladesh’s prime minister vowed to find the root causes of terrorism. While government agencies are still investigating, ruling party ministers are convinced non-state educational institutions are responsible for the recent surge in terrorism.

Soon after a senior minister called for actions against elite English-medium private universities and schools, the North South University (NSU) acting pro vice-chancellor was arrested.

A junior minister was reported as saying some private university students are:

getting involved with militancy in the private universities in the absence of progressive political activities.

The ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), has announced it will form committees across all the private universities to “fight militancy”.

Previous attacks

The focus on private universities does not seem disproportionate if one considers the background of other local youths involved in terrorist activities.

The attacker at the Eid gathering in Bangladesh on July 7, 2016, also graduated from NSU, Bangladesh’s leading private university.

Six students from the same university were arrested for the killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haidar in February 2013.

The man accused of plotting to bomb the New York Federal Reserve Bank in 2012 was also a former NSU student.

But the government’s thinking is flawed. Exerting greater political control over the private education sector is not going to solve the problem of terrorism.

Failure of state education

The long-term neglect of education by the state in Bangladesh has created a void that private providers have filled.

Private universities have also partly grown in response to the poor performance of heavily subsidised state-run universities. Despite decades of government support, these universities do not feature in the list of top 100 Asian universities.

A key reason for this is pro-government student politics, which condones violence, undermines scholarship, accepts corruption in teacher appointments and provides immunity against law-breaking.

Ruling party student leaders at public universities are regularly in the news for acts of murder, killing, extortion, arson, assaults on teachers, destruction of private property and sexual offences. This has pushed many to opt for high-fee private universities.

There are serious concerns over education quality in Bangladesh. Examination papers are frequently leaked. Students engage in rote learning and rely on private tuition instead of classroom lessons. Private coaching reached such endemic proportions that the government had to pass a law to ban the practice.

The end outcome is a weak relationship between schooling and learning.

In a recent study, I found very small gains (in terms of very basic cognitive skills) from grade completion among rural children aged 10-18 years.

This implies a flat schooling-learning profile and a deep crisis in Bangladesh’s education sector. In collaboration with researchers from BRAC, I found similar evidence of a low level of learning across state and non-state schools.

Fact of the matter is, a large proportion of the adolescents in rural Bangladesh are in school but not learning. This is worrying because the absence of critical thinking ability can make youth vulnerable to radical and extremist ideology.

Not only the government has not built enough schools since 1971, budgetary spending on education has rarely exceeded 2% of GDP.

If the government is serious about tackling terrorism, politicisation and increased surveillance in educational institutions will not be enough.

Despite many limitations, private schools and universities have for decades served as a complement to the state’s educational initiatives. They should not be singled out as a security threat.

Stereotyping non-state educational institutions will only create more divisions among Bangladeshi citizens, making it harder to build a political consensus to fight radicalisation. If anything, these institutions can be an effective force against insurgency by improving national literacy rates.

Instead of blaming students of English-medium schools, the government should focus on enhancing the quality of government schools, which are increasingly becoming weak substitutes for non-state schools.

Extremist outfits are more likely to prosper in an environment without accountability and good governance and where lawmakers themselves are law breakers.

Failing states, a broken public education system and autocratic regimes – and not private schools or the absence of party politics in private university campuses – create a hotbed for terrorism.

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