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Why Quality Universal Primary Education Is At Risk

The Twin Challenge of Education

Governments in much of the developing world will have to contend with two major, and potentially contradictory, challenges in coming decades.

First, with growing populations of young people and many more children completing primary school and demanding further and higher education, governments must expand schooling after lower secondary education.

Second, as the evidence of a learning crisis in primary schools mounts they must finish the job of ensuring universal access to quality basic education, in particular for the poorest and most marginalized children.

In the face of such competing pressures developing coherent strategies which address both challenges without breaking the bank will be a defining educational challenge.

There are no easy answers. Indeed there are considerable risks. For anyone concerned with ensuring that every child without exception receives their right to a decent education – that they are in school and learning – we must guard against a loss of prioritization for basic education.

The pressures on tertiary education must not be responded to at the expense of what in the long-term remains absolutely vital – universal, quality basic education.

Pressures to expand post-basic education

The demographics shaping much of the developing world, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, show just why post-basic education is high on agendas.

The chart below shows that in Latin America and Southern Asia populations of young people will stabilize, but remain high. In Africa, the picture is one of rapid growth.

Figure 3. Projected population of ‘young people’ (15-24 years old), 2015-2050

Source: Based on data from UN Population Statistics.
Note: Based on the “medium” scenario projected by the UN.

There are other factors adding to this pressure.

While deprived and less powerful families benefit most from improving basic education, it is often the more powerful who are demanding more opportunities for their children at college or university.

And as many African economies continue to weather the international economic storms and grow apace, there are often real shortages of higher level skills. Recent demonstrates that getting a tertiary education means far higher salaries.

Shifting future priorities?

It is hardly surprising then that some countries are witnessing the beginnings of a shift of government spending:

  • In Ethiopia a recent trend towards increased allocations for primary education will be reversed in the coming five years – 37% of the education budget will be allocated to primary compared with 48% in recent years.
  • In 2005 Kenya allocated 53.7% of its education budget to primary education; by 2010 this had fallen to 46.6%.
  • In Tanzania in 2009/10 ‘basic education’ represented 72.9% of education spending; by 2016/17 this figure is set to reduce to 65.9%. Higher Education has a planned 7% increase.

Last year’s Global Monitoring Report confirmed this shift, stating that:

Of the seventeen low and low middle income countries for which there are comparable national expenditure data for primary, secondary and tertiary education for 1999 and 2010, ten countries decreased the share of public education expenditure going to primary and secondary education overall over this period.”

Are these modest shifts in spending a harbinger of more problematic future changes? They could be.

The World Bank estimates that if countries in sub-Saharan Africa were to achieve a 95% primary completion rate then (in the 33 countries that they surveyed) this would result in over 20 million completers in 2020 compared with 9.4 in 2005.

The same report assessed the potential shortfall in funding that this expansion in post-basic education would create: in a worst case scenario it could be as high as $32.2 billion per year (again in 33 sub-Saharan African countries).

Whatever the specific numbers may be, the overarching point is clear: developing country governments will face significant pressures to spend more on post-basic education in the future.

Basic education vital for social justice and economic growth

We must guard against a loss of focus on basic education.

It is a human right that all children receive, at the very least, primary education. And the sheer scale of the learning challenge cannot be underestimated. Responding to it will require investment and bold reforms. The Global Partnership for Education is working in almost 60 developing countries helping donors and developing country partners’ work together to ensure that education aid is better coordinated and more effective, based on countries’ own education strategies. We need to support this work.

Without quality basic education countries will not continue to prosper economically. The experience of countries such as South Korea and more recently Brazil indicate that it is basic education that is critical to achieving equitable growth.

Tough choices

None of this means ignoring tertiary education. Not only does it need to be expanded, but quality is often an issue.

The pressures on tertiary education must not be responded to at the expense of what in the long-term remains absolutely vital – universal, quality basic education.

But we must avoid squeezing basic education. So what are the potential strategies for reconciling these twin future pressures on school systems?

One critical response is to increase overall levels of spending – from aid, but increasingly from domestic revenue sources – on education. For example, reducing youth unemployment has the potential to increase revenue, and therefore increase overall funding for schools.

But even with substantial increases tough choices cannot be avoided. Other strategies will be needed. Naturally different policy mixes will be relevant for different countries, but options include:

  • Continuing to pressure for the reallocation of funding from Higher Education, the case for which last year’s Global Monitoring Report reiterated.
  • Switching aid currently being allocated to scholarships – a staggering and disgraceful $3.1 billion in 2010 – into basic education.
  • Increasing business contributions to education: they benefit significantly from higher quality tertiary education and should be expected to contribute more, for example in the form of on-the-job training.

An historic opportunity: all children in primary school and learning

Millions of children are still out of school and millions learning little or nothing. Save the Children has argued that if we keep focused our generation could be the one that ensures that no child is denied their right to learn.

But as countries struggle with the twin challenges of improving quality and also expanding post-basic education there is a risk of failing to finish the job we started. Yes, post-basic education must be expanded and improved, but we must not take our eye off the historic goal of all children in school and receiving a good start in life.

By Will Paxton

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Regions and Countries :  Sub-Saharan Africa : Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania

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