This paper offers an interpretation of why Bangladesh has so successfully expanded educational access. Part of the explanation of these successes lies in domestic politics: the argument here is that educational expansion in Bangladesh is most valuably understood as part of processes of nation- and state-building. Party political competition over the definition of national identity produced a kind of expansionary logic, as successive regimes sought to stamp their own brand of nationhood on a growing population. Competition over nationalist symbols is vital political capital in this context, as the main political parties are otherwise almost indistinguishable. The tiny educated elite also supports modern education for the masses, as a means of achieving (what they view as) desirable social transformations in the behaviour and attitudes of the poor. And efforts by the state to control the character and pace of educational development have also contributed to the expansion.
Non-state educational provision has at times posed a threat to the state’s control: constrained by donor support from clamping down on NGOs, and by popular sensibilities from directly confronting the religious establishment, the state adopted a range of strategies to influence them. Many of these strategies arguably led to further expansion of educational provision. The paper suggests, however, that the politically-driven nature of the expansion has also had its downsides: it shows how the causes of the persistent problems faced by the system (low quality, pockets of exclusion) are inseparable from the causes of successful expansion. Specifically, the paper argues that the same nation- and state-building imperatives which drove the expansion of access also help explain why the system faces persistent problems of poor teacher performance, curricula biases, overly-centralised control, and the effective exclusion of marginal groups.