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Mind the gaps: what’s missing in global education?

Jakob Engel

Date: 
16 October 2012
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By Jakob Engel

You may have never heard of it, but UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report (GMR) is the most influential annual publication on education, and – particularly in its focus on inequality and marginalisation – has been well ahead of its time.

So today’s global launch of the latest GMR in Paris is worth paying attention to. The report focuses on three gaps that characterise education systems throughout the world: the gap between marginalised groups and the rest in accessing quality education, between employer demands and the skills youths possess, and the gap between current levels of education financing and what is needed to achieve education for all. There is some good news as well – particularly in relation to gender equity and primary enrolment – but the report’s implications are sobering for the prospects of future generations.

Substantial progress since 2000, but momentum is slowing

As the newest data in the GMR demonstrate, significant progress has been made against the six Education for All goals since 2000. Primary and secondary completion rates have increased significantly in all regions of the world, while major gains have been made in closing the gender gap.

However, the report shows evidence of momentum slipping. While the number of out-of-school children has fallen from 108 million in 1999 to 61 million in 2010, the last two years have seen an increase in sub-Saharan Africa.

Percentage of out-of-school children of primary school age, 1999-2010

Percentage of out-of-school children of primary school age, 1999-2010

Source: 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report

A child’s chance of finishing school is still determined in large parts by their parent’s income, their sex, their ethnicity and the place they were born. The new World Inequality Database on Education paints a stark picture:
 

Pakistan, 2007: Share of 17-22 year olds who had fewer than two years in school

Source: UNESCO World Inequality Database on Education

Within this context, some countries have made particularly impressive gains. As has also been highlighted in recent Development Progress case studies, Ethiopia, long one of the most educationally disadvantaged countries in the world, was able to achieve a four-fold reduction in the number of out-of-school primary-age children over 20 years. In Brazil, a combination of sustained growth, improved child and maternal health and targeted social-protection policies has led to substantial improvements in learning outcomes among the poor. The potential gains of thinking across sectors in education is central to the second phase of Development Progress case studies and also features prominently in the new policy guide on education by the Chronic Poverty Action Network.

Understanding the skills mismatch

The current global economic crisis has resulted in sustained high levels of youth unemployment and underemployment, with nearly 75 million youths unemployed around the world. In many countries, however, despite countless job seekers, many employers feel they can’t find qualified workers. As I point in out in a GMR Background Paper examining this mismatch, in Jordan, where the youth unemployment rate is over 25% (and much higher for young women and in rural areas, where there are few jobs), over one third of employers find inadequate employee skills a constraint to business development. In turn, many well-educated youths are reluctant to accept low salaries.

At the core of this is a lack of prioritisation, joined-up thinking and coordination, as well as insufficient and inefficient financing. Prior to recent reforms, over 20 governmental bodies were responsible for the oversight and provision of skills training in Bangladesh. At the same time, programmes tended to be of a low quality, relying on outdated equipment, and were teaching skills not relevant to the labour market.

Following on the heels of the new World Development Report on jobs, the GMR brings a necessary ‘education-first’ perspective on the youth-employment crisis. Among its ten recommendations, it advocates increasing access to and the relevance of (especially lower) secondary education, and addressing the particular skills-development needs of marginalised groups in cities and rural areas. What perhaps doesn’t come out as clearly as in the WDR is the demand side of the equation – frequently, skills gaps are only one of many reasons why there are insufficient jobs for youths (including inadequate access to finance, poor infrastructure and electrification, and an unfavourable investment climate).

Gearing up for post-2015

No report related to development policy these days is complete without engaging with the post-MDG debate. While this is mostly to be found between the lines, the GMR is no exception.

For one, the report represents a concerted call to take the skills agenda more seriously when setting and monitoring global goals and targets. It estimates that 200 million young people in developing countries require a second chance to acquire literacy and numeracy. Given the few internationally comparable measures on skills – perhaps one of the reasons for neglect in this area – the report suggests a set of indicators to compare the ‘skilling’ of countries.

The report also sets the goal of universalising lower-secondary education by 2030. However, even in countries where almost all children are completing primary school, learning outcomes are frequently so poor that many who complete six years of schooling are functionally illiterate. Given the strain on budgets everywhere, financing these competing priorities will therefore be a challenge. Here, the GMR places perhaps a bit too much stock in increasing foundation and private-sector financing of education, and in the hope that countries that have recently discovered oil or minerals will evade the ‘resource curse’ and invest in education.

While there is scope for more clarity on how its recommendations could be operationalised, the GMR makes a compelling case that many education and training systems remain poorly governed, underfinanced and don’t deliver for millions of children and youths. ‘Education for All’ has been an important rallying cry for a generation of policy-makers and advocates, but, as we move towards a post-2015 framework, we increasingly need to ask ourselves ‘Education for What’?