Graduate unemployment ‘is stoking religious extremism’

Amid recent incidents of university graduates being engaged in terrorist attacks, researchers have warned that a growing number of economically inactive graduates in Bangladesh could be turning to extremism.

The number of higher education graduates in Bangladesh increased in recent years but many are unemployed. Researchers say these economically inactive graduates remain alienated and in some cases turn to ideological alternatives such as religious extremism.

A report released this earlier this month by the Dhaka-based Center for Employment and Development Research revealed that 16.4% of young people in Bangladesh with graduate and postgraduate degrees are unemployed, compared to 7% for those with secondary school certificates.

Generally, the unemployment rate in the country is around 13.6%.

Comparing data from 2010 and 2016, the report said the unemployment rate among graduate youth is on the rise. In 2010 unemployment among graduates and post graduates was just 10%.

“This is alarming,” Debapriya Bhattacharya, a fellow at the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue told University World News. He said there is a major concern about the quality of education in the secondary and higher secondary education systems and young people remain unskilled even after graduating from universities.

“The dangerous consequence is: these youths remain alienated from their family and isolated from society. This is leading to depression and drug addiction. Some of them are seeking ideological alternatives,” he said.

“There is both a structural and a qualitative mismatch. While graduates with general education are not getting jobs, many Bangladeshi companies are hiring vocationally skilled people from neighbouring countries,” he added.

The issue of radicalised, disaffected youth came to the fore after the attackers of a bakery in Dhaka in July last year were found to be highly educated and from good families. Some 18 foreigners including students were killed in the attack. ISIS later claimed responsibility though the Bangladesh government had blamed local militants.

Link to extremism

The issue of graduate unemployment has become more pertinent in Bangladesh after international researchers found a link between highly educated youth without jobs and recruitment by Islamic State or ISIS. Notably, a report by the World Bank, published in October 2016, which studied some 4,000 leaked ISIS membership details, found that ISIS members were relatively better educated and better off compared to others in their countries of origin but were unable to find work.

Based on the data from 2013 and 2014 from an ISIS member who defected in early 2016, the report from the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region entitled Economic and Social Inclusion to Prevent Violent Extremism showed that more than a quarter of foreign ISIS recruits had university-level education. Only 15% of the 3,803 case studies had not completed secondary education. Many were from countries of high unemployment, such as Tunisia and Egypt.

Although the report does not specifically include South Asia, it said, “the proportions of [ISIS] administrators but also of suicide fighters increase with education. Recruits who reported not working or being in the military before joining Daesh [ISIS] are the most prone to choosing 'suicide fighter' as their preferred option.”

Skills mismatch

Zahid Hussain, lead economist in the World Bank Dhaka office, said many industries in Bangladesh are hiring skilled people from other countries and that Bangladesh’s education system was failing to meet the needs of industry.

Students said some subjects taught in universities had little or no demand in the industrial sector. Shamsul Alam, a University of Dhaka graduate in philosophy is still looking for a job after graduating five years ago. “It is really difficult to get a job after graduating in philosophy,” he said.

Alomgir Hossian, a student who graduated in Persian from the University of Dhaka said employers do not want to recruit him when they know the subject he studied.

Bhattacharya said quality of education must be increased to address the mismatch.