The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage communities and test education systems around the world.
In many developing countries, very little learning has been taking place during school closures, mainly because of the digital divide. For example, many African countries lack basic digital infrastructure and tools to provide effective online teaching and learning.
Granted, radio, TV and other initiatives have been tried, but none of these have been sufficient to fulfil the right to quality education for the most marginalised students including rural children, those with disabilities, migrants and refugees. Girls have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and there is a real risk that many of them may not return to school due to pregnancy, early marriage, child labour and other factors.
EI’s 2019 assessment of progress towards the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on Quality Education showed that the world was off-track. Unfortunately, the situation has worsened since then because of COVID-19, and the prospect of achieving SDG4 by 2030 is even grimmer now than ever.
The pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated existing challenges affecting education systems around the world. Full recovery and substantial progress can only be achieved if governments and the international community invest more money in equitable, inclusive quality education for all.
This year’s Global Education Week for Education (GAWE) provides an opportunity for educators and their unions, civil society organisations, student unions and education advocates and activists to join hands in calling for more and better financing for education.
In this paper, I propose three keys for unlocking more funding for education.
Key Number 1: Meet global commitments to financing education
Governments should meet the global commitment to invest at least 15-20% of the national budget or at least 4-6% of GDP in education. Many countries still fall short of this internationally agreed benchmark (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in Africa). According to the Global Education Monitoring Report, on average, countries currently invest 4.4% of GDP in education globally. African countries invest 16.8% of total public expenditure in education.
It is vitally important to recall that prior to 2015, education financing benchmarks stood at 20% of the national budget and 6% of GDP.
The range in funding commitments came about in an effort to reach consensus by accommodating developed countries with aging populations. As indicated in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, developing countries with young populations should invest more (at least 20% of the national budget or at least 6% of GDP). Developed countries should meet their commitment to invest at least 0.7% of their country’s Gross National Income (GNI) in development aid and ensure that at least 20% of it is earmarked for education.
Key Number 2: Grow the size of the budget “cake” through fair and progressive taxation
For many developing countries, the main challenge is the limited size of the overall budget “cake”, which naturally affects the slice or proportion of the budget allocated to education. Simple steps to increase the overall size of the budget can massively increase the domestic resources available for education. These include increasing tax to GDP ratio through progressive tax policies or challenging aggressive tax avoidance, tax evasion, tax holidays and corruption.
Any sustainable investment in teachers, for example, requires sufficient mobilisation of domestic tax revenues and ensuring that a fair share of those revenues is allocated to education. Fair and progressive taxation will always yield the most significant resources for education budgets in general and for teachers specifically.
Key Number 3: Challenge the conditionalities and policies of International Financial Institutions
The lending policies of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) often impose destructive conditions on developing countries.
These can include caps on public expenditure and the wage bill, which make it difficult or even impossible for recipient countries to invest more domestic resources in education and teachers. Structural adjustment policies and budget caps imposed by international financial institutions have made it difficult for many developing countries to train, recruit and retain qualified teachers.
Recent ActionAid and Oxfam studies show that wage bill constraints have been factored into the COVID-19 loans given to developing countries by the IMF. The return of wage bill constraints spells doom for many African and other developing countries, which have been trying to recover from the vestiges of the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.
IFIs do not only impose punitive conditionalities on low- and middle-income countries, but they too often prescribe or fund destructive education policies and programmes.
Private provision of education is often portrayed as a panacea for challenges related to quality and access, particularly for the most marginalised. The World Bank is notorious for promoting privatisation and commercialisation of education, competition and standardised assessments with the mistaken belief that these measures will help drive quality, yet they often lead to narrowing of the curriculum and exclusion.
The struggle for financing of public education and for resisting privatisation are two sides of the same coin. Education unions, civil society and education activists should therefore continue, not just to demand more and better funding for education, but also to challenge privatisation and commercialisation of education.