Colonial Legacies, Globalisation, English Language Education Policy, and Human Capital Development: The Case of Bangladesh



Image credit – The Daily Star

by Dr. Md. Maksud Ali        11 October 2022


There is an old saying in Bengali that লেখা পড়া করে যে গাড়ি ঘোড়া চড়ে সে (The person who reads and writes meaning those who are educated gets to ride a car and mount a horse). Ownership of ‘Horses’ and ‘cars’ is a metaphor for material benefits accruable through education.

In other words, the above saying that gained currency during the British colonial period of the Indian sub-continent (1857 -1947) illustrates the instrumental value of education in relation to upward economic and social mobility in the society. This conceptualisation of education— particularly in relation to the ability to read and write and the emphasis was on English language learning — foregrounded a meritocratic ideology in education which in essence was elitist as well as exclusionary. During British colonial rule, the ability to read and write in local and/or indigenous languages was considered inadequate to move up the economic and social ladder and this was deliberately done to encourage production of a coterie of local elites, the so-called ‘Babus’, whose services and their ability to communicate in colonial master’s language – English – was deemed essential to operate the colonial system.

As a result, and over the years, Indians with literacy in English formed a distinct social class who had access to employment and colonial trade and administrative bureaucracy. In other words, during the colonial period in the Indian Sub-continent, proficiency in English or otherwise became a means of inclusion and/or exclusion from social and economic opportunities.

Colonial Legacies in English Language Teaching

Although seven decades have passed since the Sub-continent has been decolonised which currently, exists as three independent countries, namely Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, the colonial-time saying that stressed the congruity between education meaning proficiency in English language and material gains, does not seem to have changed much.

Presently, the privileged class continues to view the English language as an important tool for acquiring economic and social status.

Thus, English has survived in the post-colonial context through its inclusion in the school curriculum working as a mechanism for “elite closure”. The colonial legacy of focusing mainly on reading and writing ability in English as well as teaching methods (e.g., the Grammar Translation Method) conducive to developing such ability has also been retained. Language education emphasised the teaching of vocabulary, grammar rules, and language conventions that contributed to maintaining social hierarchy and distinctions. A good example of this is teaching students the colonial honorifics i.e., the use of “proper salutations” (“Sir”, “Honourable” so and so, “Your Obedient Servant” etc., etc.)  in formal letters and job applications, that reflect a colonial ruler-subject ethos, continues to date.

Globalization and Transition to ‘Economisation’ of English Language Learning

This colonial origin of English for social mobility has manifested itself in a different way in the current globalisation context. The neoliberal movement (also known as late capitalism) originating in the West has adopted English as the main language of communication in the market-based global economy. This extension of the Anglo-American economic ideology to the rest of the world can be considered a new form of colonialism, in which the role of English has been made an inseparable instrument of global trade and investment transactions.

From an instrumental perspective, English provides individuals and nations access to the global economy. On the contrary, a lack of proficiency in the language can easily mean exclusion and non-participation in the globalised world. This structural demand has necessitated nations around the world, including those in post-colonial contexts, to revise language education policy. Thus, while during the colonial period access to English language learning was limited to particular social classes, globalisation compelled nation-states to emphasise ‘English for all’ to make them compatible with the demands of globalised economic transactions.

In this regard, what is noteworthy, is the shift in the views about language use. The focus on literacy has shifted from mere reading and writing ability to a more integrated approach, that puts stress on speaking and real-life communication skills to respond to the demand of the employment market. This policy response to market demand and aligning education with employment is known as economisation of education.

Considering their relevance to the formal economy and the job market in a neoliberal environment, communication skills in English are regarded as a form of human capital. Hence, developing societies have emphasised economisation of English language teaching policy for human capital development. It is believed that economisation can contribute to individuals’ employability, upward career mobility, and income, and thereby, to national economic development. These assumptions are guided by human capital theory (HCT) which provides the key idea that good citizens are those with human capital, employability, and productivity and the ability to contribute to individual and national economic development. With its narrowed focus mainly on economic development, the ideology of English as human capital and its economic potential have become dominant in our time, particularly in the context of globalisation.

‘Economisation’ of English Language Learning: The Case of Bangladesh

How do such policy reforms including economisation of education for human capital development translate into schooling practices? On the one hand, schooling and social contexts have been shaped by the colonial legacy, including maintaining the status quo and the traditional notion of literacy. On the other hand, economisation means the promotion of skills that are demanded by the global economy and the employment market.

Economisation in developing societies such as Bangladesh is contextualised in relation to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG-8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG-10 (Reduced Inequalities). The strategy has provided valid grounds to authorities in Bangladesh to attract foreign development aid in education. It is in this context of English and development that a mega project called English in Action (2008-2018, £50 million) was implemented in Bangladesh by the British Government. English in Action made it clear that the British Government, as a development partner of Bangladesh, was interested in Bangladesh’s economic development by developing the English language proficiency of the Bangladeshi people. Making a connection with SDG4, which is about quality and inclusive education, the project targeted the poorer section of society and envisioned their integration with the formal economy and job market. Reflecting this national and global emphasis on human capital development in Bangladesh through English language education, it is critical to understand how economisation of policy relates to schooling practices.

Analysis of the Bangladesh secondary English curricula revealed that the concept of human capital and an employment-orientation/economisation was introduced in English language teaching during the 1990s. This introduction took place in relation to broader public policy, especially the Five-Year Plans formulated by the Bangladesh Planning Commission. Undeniably, human capital development has always received attention in the public policy space since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. However, this was not explicitly exported into education and language education policy until the 1990s.

From the 1990s onwards, the period when Bangladesh liberalised and globalised its economy, Bangladesh’s government emphasised instrumental potential of education and argued for economisation of education in the public policy. Since 1990s, the Five-Year plans emphasised that education needs to be economised to produce skilled human capital for Bangladesh’s economic development. This articulation of the goals of education with emphasis on human capital was later exported into the school curricula, notably the English language curriculum.

MDGs, SDGs and Education Policy

The importance of human capital development was further emphasised in the public policy and in the curricula with the emergence of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and later the SDGs. The public policy emphasised human capital development to achieving MDGs and SDGs and accelerating the country’s economic development. In other words, economisation was contextualised in relation to global agenda for development, which coincided with globalisation and liberalization of the economies.

However, the research has revealed that there are discrepancies between policies and actual practices in English language teaching at school level. In other words, economisation was in the policy but not in practice in schools and this is mainly because the teachers had little knowledge nor skills around how they could translate these human capital development goals into their teaching. This is because teachers themselves have never been oriented to ‘economising’ requirements of English language teaching and thus found it difficult to translate the ‘economising’ requirements into schooling. In other words, schools and teachers are provided with discourses but not with guidance and support for translating discourses into practice. Consequently, teachers and school leaders were found to mainly reproduce the discourses of English and human capital; little could they explain how these discourses might be translated into pedagogical tasks.

Examination Methods

At the same time, the high-stakes secondary English examinations such as the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) do not respond to the human capital development agenda of the policy.

English-language examinations follow a traditional approach, in which knowledge of grammar, reading comprehension, and writing skills, the colonial educational standards are tested. Oral and aural skills forming human capital in the contemporary employment market are not assessed.

Thus, while on the one hand, there is significant policy investment in introduction and implementation of global pedagogic models such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) for human capital development, on the other, little attention is paid to the assessment criteria relevant to the assessment of communication skills/ human capital.

Thus, teaching and testing follow two different directions— while the aim is to make English learning market oriented and employment friendly, in reality, it follows the colonial legacies of English teaching.

In this situation, schools and teachers need to recalibrate both curriculum, teaching and assessment criteria – they need to pick one or the other or at best integrate the two, that is if possible. Moreover, teacher performance should be based on their contributions to human capital development through language teaching.

More critically, although economisation and human capital development have been contextualised in relation to global development goals such as SDGs, schooling practices do not reflect this connection. The study suggests that the stratification characteristic of Bangladeshi society is also visible in schooling practices. For example, in Bangladesh it is evident that based on socio-economic groupings there are four different socioeconomic (i.e., high-, mid-, low-, and extremely low) contexts of schooling these days. These contexts are stratified in terms of school resources, teacher quality, student backgrounds, and parents’ social/educational/economic condition contributing to education processes. Indeed, the broader educational processes and schooling practices were stratified based on the socioeconomic stratification as evident in different contexts.

The key challenge for Bangladesh is to find ways to make access to quality education equitable and inclusive, an important goal of the SDGs.

In sum, firstly, the discrepancies between policy and practice stymie progress in economising aspects of English language teaching at the school levels; secondly, existing examination and grading system contradicts requirements of human capital development assessment aspects of student performance befitting integration into contemporary job market, and thirdly and more worryingly, the existing structural inequities in the society are promoting inequities in access to quality education.

The way forward

The way forward is first, to recognize the lingering legacies of colonialism in education; secondly, appreciate in concrete terms the economising needs of the English learning in a globalised economy and translating these into measurable and implementable policies; thirdly, interrogate the ambiguities created between policy and practice as a mechanism to overcome social stratification and make access to quality education equitable.  In this regard, it is important to appreciate that given the existing inequities in the society introducing CLT for human capital development and promoting ‘English for all’ ideology would not necessarily and automatically confirm an equitable and inclusive education system nor equal socio-economic outcomes for all. And therefore, what is needed is that the government plays a more proactive role, warranting not just equitable resource distribution and providing support for the people in marginalized contexts, but also critical interrogation of the local politics as the latter often manifests itself in promoting contradictory teaching-testing priorities at the local level.

Acknowledgment: The article is based on key findings of the Author’s Ph.D. thesis, “English for human capital development in a globalising world: Policy, Perceptions, and Practices.” The Author acknowledges and thanks his Ph.D. advisors, Dr. M Obaidul Hamid, the Principal Advisor, and the Associate Advisors, Associate Professor Ian Hardy, of the School of Education and Professor M. Adil Khan, of the School of Social Sciences, of the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, for their scholarly support and guidance in conducting Author’s Ph.D. research, respectively.