Invest now in education to avoid higher cost to society later

By Leonardo Garnier, Special Adviser to UN Secretary General for Transforming Education and Lily Neyestani, UNESCO Chief of SDG4 Global Education Cooperation and Inter-Agency Secretariat to the High-Level Steering Committee 

Earlier this month we participated in a high-level panel on education at the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in Marrakech bringing finance ministers around the table to discuss education spending not as a cost but as a critical enabling investment for the progress of societies.

Protracted education crisis in all its dimensions

Across the world, education today is in crisis. It is a crisis of equity and inclusion, as millions of children remain out of school and deprived of the opportunities to learn. Recent UNESCO figures show that the number of children that are out of school has increased to 250 million.  To ensure countries reach their commitments to reduce this number, we would need to enrol a child in school every 2 seconds between now and 2030.

At the same time, it is a crisis of education outcomes in terms of both quality and relevance. Learners who do have access to schooling are not even learning the basics in literacy and numeracy, let alone 21st century capacities to fully engage in their communities, express their ideas and talents, and contribute positively to their societies.

The year 2023 marks the mid-term of the implementation of our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 4 remains alarmingly off-track. If education is left unattended, it will undermine our efforts tackling global challenges and future crises.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the education crisis and inequalities, not only between countries and education systems, but also between different learner groups, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. This generation of students risks losing US$ 21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings in present value, or the equivalent of 17 per cent of today’s global GDP.

There is a massive shortage of qualified teachers to provide quality education and training, with UNESCO figures pointing to a global shortage of 44 million teachers, leaving the quality of learning in the classroom under pressure.

Shrinking national education budgets

Whereas it is urgent now more than ever that we invest more and better in education, the opposite is largely true in practice leaving low- and lower-middle-income countries facing an alarming annual financing gap of close to US$ 100 billion until 2030 to reach their education targets.

Against this backdrop, the UNESCO-World Bank Education Finance Watch 2023 shows that overseas development assistance to education fell by 7% from 2020 to 2021, while countries are trying to fill in the gaps, stopping the stagnation of spending on global education budgets during the pandemic, and increasing contributions again in 2021.

All told, however, it is not enough. Households still account for a sizable share of total education spending in low- and lower-middle-income countries, accounting for 37 and 36 percent of the total, in 2021.

Cuts in national education spending are being made to find resources for other matters, rather than expanding the fiscal space to guarantee sustainable resources to finance education. We are now therefore witnessing a race to the bottom; we took a wrong turn, and must stop this race, shift gears and reverse to get back on track.

This is not just a question of insufficient investment but also a question of unequal investment. With 10% of the world’s school-age population, high income countries account for almost two thirds of global investment in education. At the other extreme, low and lower-middle-income countries face the daunting task of educating 75% of the world’s school age population with less than 10% of the global investment in education.

The Marrakesh dialogue

Recognizing the importance of discussing issues around prioritization, strategic planning and financing, the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee called for a periodic dialogue between ministers of education and finance, launched at the IMF-World Bank 2023 Spring Meetings in Washington and continued at its Annual Meetings in Marrakech.

There we exchanged with 13 finance ministers from various countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America on the challenges they face when it comes to education financing, and the various trade-offs they face vis-à-vis allocating resources between sectors.

As Indermit Gill, the World Bank Chief Economist underscored at the meeting, the unequal distribution of educational investment translates into a dramatic reproduction of global educational inequality, as the amount of resources each country can invest per school-age person greatly diverges. Roughly, per capita spending in education is over US$ 8500 per year in high-income countries, but only US$ 300 in lower-middle-income countries and merely US$ 50 in low-income countries. Domestic inequalities only compound the problem.

Without exception, all ministers indicated that government budgets are under pressure, and that, due to global crises, resources become thinly spread between different priorities. However, many ministers also mentioned that post-COVID budget allocations to sectors such as health, infrastructure, and security have substantially increased, without any significant effort to widen the fiscal space for education.

Education tends to be seen as business as usual, and countries balance increases in some sectors with austerity measures reducing social and education investment aimed at balancing the budget. Only a few countries see the transformative power that education can have in the long term on their country.

Our response to the finance ministers was clear: these trade-offs are rather focused on the short term. Although bringing marginal positive effects, countries should put investments in education at the front and centre of their fiscal policy and spending priorities.

Critical for this dialogue between financial and education authorities is the understanding that education has proved to be an investment with one of the highest rates of return, let alone a critical investment for achieving all 17 SDGs. Over forty years, income per capita is estimated to be 23% higher in a country with more equal education.

Shifting the narrative

The dialogue that needs to take place globally – and more importantly at domestic level – should not centre around the alleged trade-offs between sectors with competing resource interests, but rather needs to be structured around the complementarities of such investments.

Questions of strategic financing for the future must include considerations of the long-term impact of such investments and their significant rates of economic return, which calls for renewed efforts at expanding the fiscal space through ambitious and progressive tax reforms, a better handling of critical debt issues and other innovative finance mechanisms. We must have education at the heart of this dialogue.

Simply put, the lack of adequate investments in education implies the de-facto bankruptcy of our society, not only looking through the lens of economic development, but also on other fronts, human well-being, social coexistence in an increasingly diverse context, our living environment, global peace and security, and the full enjoyment of a good and meaningful life.

We therefore need to be making better and smarter choices of how and where we invest, ensure value for money in the long run, and not shy away from making bold real transformative investments in education, going beyond the “financing as usual” case.

To conclude, if we are to unlock the transformative power of education to tackle global challenges and inequalities and promote a more dynamic, fair and sustainable development, we must do three things:

  1. We must invest more in education: increasing not only the national and public effort as reflected in percentages of GDP and domestic budgets but increasing real per capita investment in education.
  2. We must invest more equitably in education: making sure that the most vulnerable 40% of potential learners in every country has access to quality and relevant education.
  3. We must invest more efficiently in education: taking advantage of what we already invest and magnifying its results through proven methods of effective teaching, assessing, and learning.


1 comment

  1. In the three recommendations at the end of this blog, the word “education” should be replaced by “early childhood development”. The rate of return for investment in young children is higher than for investment in “schooling” — yet the blog completely ignores the need to increase access to, and the quality of and financing for, early childhood development programmes – which can only serve to later enhance the “transformative power” of education.

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