What is the Wellbeing of Youth Globally?
There is little doubt that education is a cornerstone of individual wellbeing and national development. For youth, education is key to increased economic prospects, health, civic participation, and competitiveness in an increasingly globalized workforce.
May 19, 2014 by Dr. Nicole Goldin
8 minutes read
Young women in India. Credit: World Bank/Curt Carnemark

There is little doubt that education is a cornerstone of individual wellbeing and national development.  For youth, education is key to increased economic prospects, health, civic participation, and competitiveness in an increasingly globalized workforce.  

At the same time, we know that more educated societies are also likely to be more peaceful and prosperous. Yet globally, roughly 25% of young people remain illiterate and half the world’s out of school children and youth live in conflict-affected regions.

Additionally, it is increasingly evident that youth in developed and emerging economies alike are not gaining the knowledge and skills they need to be economically viable.

In our recently released Global Youth Wellbeing Index, we recognized just how central education is to youth wellbeing. The Index, launched by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and International Youth Foundation with support from the Hilton Foundation, considers the state of youth in 30 countries around the world, which hold nearly 70% of the world’s youth population. Of the 40 indicators that comprise the Index, six make up the education domain: public spending on education, secondary school enrollment, tertiary school enrollment, youth literacy, school life expectancy (primary to tertiary) and educational satisfaction. 

How well do young people do?

Overall, young people in wealthy nations with stronger systems and public services experience higher levels of wellbeing. And while we find youth generally fare strongest in health and weakest in economic opportunity, the index findings also indicate a strong correlation between education attainment and overall levels of youth wellbeing.

Countries that perform best in education are generally those that perform best in the overall ranking of youth wellbeing.

Australia, Spain, the United States, South Korea, and the United Kingdom are the top five performers within the education domain, and also place in the top ten countries in the overall rankings.

Why do some countries rank lower or higher?

There are notable exceptions, however, such as Russia, which ranks 13th in the education domain, but 25th overall. Russia scores better in tertiary school enrollment and youth literacy, but has lower public spending on education, and Russians report lower satisfaction with the education system.

Similarly, South Africa ranks 14th in education, but 23rd in the Index overall. South Africa is the highest ranked Sub-Saharan Africa country in education, scoring well in youth literacy, public spending on education, satisfaction with the education system, and secondary school enrollment. Yet South Africa’s lower school life expectancy and tertiary school enrollment rates drive down its score in this domain.

Conversely, some countries rank comparatively lower in the education domain than in their overall Index ranking. Vietnam for example, ranks significantly lower in education, at 20th place, than it does overall, at 11th place.  While satisfaction with the local education system, literacy rates and public spending on education are above the index average, it has relatively low school life expectancy and secondary and tertiary school enrollment rates.

What might we conclude?

First, countries that are middle or high-income tend to have the public resources and infrastructure that enables them to perform better on indicators related to public spending on education, levels of tertiary education enrollment, and school life expectancy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, youth in developed countries indicate generally greater satisfaction with their education system than those in developing countries.

Second, perceptions matter.  Peru and Thailand’s rankings in education decrease three and four places, respectively, when perception is not taken into account, indicating Peruvians and Thais are generally optimistic about the quality of education they receive. Greater data on youth opinion of the quality and dynamics of their education at different levels could spotlight opportunities to make the education experience and educational investments more effective.

Which brings me to a third conclusion:

There remain large gaps in available data, and consistent, comparable data sets to assess global educational quality and outcomes are altogether lacking in many cases.

While there are efforts underway to measure learning outcomes, such as those led by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development under the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the data included within such datasets remains limited in its geographic representation, and is not necessarily comparable with national or other regional measures. Better, more complete outcomes-based data are needed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of global educational systems, which, in turn, could highlight opportunities for investment and cross-sectoral partnerships.

Similarly, expanded data on vocational, technical, and alternative education and learning could further highlight the extent of the global knowledge and skills mismatch, and its impediment to youth’s success.

Finally, more geographically- and gender-disaggregated data could help identify shared and specific challenges in the quality of and youths’ access to education, and possible points for intervention and partnerships among relevant stakeholders, as the world considers how to make education and training relevant in larger development initiatives and goals for lifelong learning in the Post-2015 era.  You can explore the data and download the reports at www.youthindex.org.

Dr. Nicole Goldin is director of the Youth, Prosperity and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in partnership with the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Follow her on Twitter @nicolegoldin.

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