IT sector at post-LDC time: Forging industry-academia partnership
Bangladesh IT/ITES industry is faring comparatively well by achieving US$ 1.3 billion export earnings in FY 2020-21 and holding US$ 1.4 billion equivalent market share in the local market contributing 0.76 per cent to the GDP creating more than 1 million employment opportunities so far amid Covid-19 havoc that suddenly shattered businesses last year. However, data compiled by Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) from the sources of National Board of Revenue (NBR) and Bangladesh Bank (BB) tells us a different story.
According to EPB, export earnings of Computer Services (Software, Data Processing, Consultancy, etc) in FY 2020-21 were US$ 303.76 million, up by 9.88 per cent from the last year. Meanwhile, the ICT freelancers' earnings through Payoneer channel have been around US$ 150 million, when ICT freelancers' earnings through other international payment channels are still not disseminated by any government or private agency yet.
Paving towards the long-cherished dream of becoming a knowledge-based and 4IR-driven developed country by 2041, riding on the ICT industry successes in tandem with the manufacturing sectorial sustaining export growth. Bangladesh is now looking forward to reaching Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and preferential trade agreements (PTAs) with major trading partners for ensuring the future market access,where, expectedly counterparts will seek reciprocal benefits not only in the product sector but also in the service sector. It will urge the WTO's major principle--'national treatment' to be upheld across the sectors removing the protective tariff measure exercised now--against the import of similar software that is locally made.
Besides, WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement will be observed to be fully utilizedthat may shoot up the overhead costs of the ICT sector as the businesses will have to refrain from using any type of pirated and cracked software, solutions as well asthe database. More to that, a total withdrawal of 10 per cent cash incentives on IT/ITES export earnings will have to be in place following the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures which will certainly cause a sharp decline in the global competitiveness of Bangladesh ICT industry.
In the face of all these challenging changes, the key factor for Bangladesh ICT sector would be to increase the productivity of existing workforce by reskilling and up-skilling for remaining competitive as it means more outputs generated using lesser financial resources, well on the other front, for the government it would take to rebuild an ecosystem for producing more IT engineers equipped with the neo-skills demanded by domestic ICT industry tantamount to the human resourceskills offered by the Indian, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, and Singaporean IT industries, as the skilled-outsourcing opportunities in Japan and Netherlands following the traditional markets like the UK and the USA are rising.
As the country is producing only around 22 thousand ICT learned graduates every year, much lower than the arts and social science graduates cornering 5 hundred thousand-- exposing a serious lack in the national facilities to provide STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education,mostly, discarding the ICT industry need. The lack of diversified skills within the domain of ICT is merely keeping Bangladesh to be an order-carrier or replicator of the already innovated IT/ITES solutions rather than becoming world leader at some ICT niches that India did pretty successfully.
Worldwide, the university-industry collaboration has emerged as a new means to hoist the country's competitiveness in terms of developing skilled human resources and spearheading innovation.
Surprisingly enough, universities and the existing system of academic curricula in Bangladesh are not encouraging industry-oriented critical thinking and primarily utilizing rote-learning which encourages passivity. Teaching in a corporatized model and limited research grants of public funds--less than 1 per cent of the annual budget in universities hamper adequate research engagement and quality research output compared to our neighboring countries.
Considering the epitomic criticality, itis high time to strengthen industry-academia collaboration among the academia, ICT business stakeholders and government as mentioned below:
1. Introducing a blended Outcome-based-Education (OBE) system encompassing classroom and laboratory-based teachings as well as IT/ITES industry-oriented practical learnings following China's model for undergraduate and postgraduate engineering academic degrees.
2. While teaching in the classrooms and labs, our distinguished University faculty members may shed more and more light on the practical ICT sectorial problems and solutions besides transmitting theoretical knowledge to open up the creative eyes of the students.
3. Establishing focused STEM Research Universities to offer high-quality postgraduation degrees and Knowledge Parks in collaboration with industry to inspire innovation and readdress skills-gap rapidly.
4. Providing incentives, like, exemption of the source tax imposed on the export earnings by the ICT exporters for R&D collaboration with universities and to start internship exchange programs with universities regularly to facilitate greater knowledge.
5. Creating opportunities to commercialize ICT research works and innovations. This will incentivize research bodies, universities and industries to build the fraternity.
6. Bangladesh is now in a position of providing Technical Assistance to the LDCs replicating the best ICT projects of the country as stated in the National ICT Policy 2018, which will help the country to increase IT/ITES export and country brand image further. TAs should be prioritized to be enacted and implemented through the collaboration of university computer science students, faculties and local ICT businesses.
7. Strengthening IT/ITES sectorial and academia partnership to keep up the pace with fast the paced world for addressing emerging skills and redesign the education curricula based on market demand in the quickest possible time. Right at this moment, a rigorous cross-country comparative ICT skills need assessment study has to be performed with the grant funding created by the government and the engagement of BASIS as a leading and key implementing trade organization for redesigning the computer science education system.
8. A tripartite platform engaging universities, ICT industry trade organizations like BASIS, BACCO, E-CAB and research institutions may be created.
9. Increasing public investment in education, skills development and research & development. However, spending more money is not an absolute solution, ensuring total efficiency is.
Our academia has to come forward extending its hands to the ICT industry for harnessing the benefit of the demographic dividend that will start declining after 2040. Our government is requested to consider pursuing timely policies and institutional mechanisms for steering the IT/ITES industry and academia relationship, otherwise, if the country paves in an unplanned way, it may fall into the "Middle Income Trap" and fiascos may grasp future Bangladesh's fate, that the nation never expects to see.
The writer, Enamul Hafiz Latifee is the Joint Secretary (Research Fellow), Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS)