A new joint report by the World Bank and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has found that the Caribbean and other countries are cutting their education budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Washington-based financial institution and the Paris-based UNESCO Education Finance Watch (EFW) said that education budgets are not adjusting proportionately to the challenges brought about by COVID-19, especially in poorer countries.
Despite additional funding needs, the new reports says that two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries, such as those in the Caribbean, have, in fact, cut their public education budgets since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In comparison, only one-third of upper-middle and high-income countries have reduced their budgets, the report says.
“These budget cuts have been relatively small thus far, but there is a danger that future cuts will be larger, as the pandemic continues to take its economic toll, and fiscal positions worsen,” the report says. “These differing trends imply a significant widening of the already large spending disparities seen between low- and high-income countries.”
According to the new report, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018-19, high-income countries were spending annually the equivalent of US$8,501 for every child or youth’s education compared to US$48 in low-income countries.
The report says COVID-19 is only widening this huge per-capita education spending gap between rich and poor countries.
EFW stresses that the education finance challenge is not only about mobilizing resources but also about improving the effectiveness of funding.
“Unfortunately, recent increases in public education spending have been associated with relatively small improvements in education outcomes,” the report says. “Although access to education has improved, the learning poverty rate – the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read a short, age-appropriate text – was 53 per cent in low- and middle-income countries prior to COVID-19, compared to only 9 per cent for high-income countries.”
COVID-19 related school closures are likely to increase this 53 per cent share to as much as 63 per cent, the report says.
“This is a critical moment where countries need to recover the learning losses the pandemic is generating, invest in remedial education, and use this window of opportunity to build more effective, equitable, and resilient systems,” said Mamta Murthi, World Bank Vice President for Human Development. “The learning poverty crisis that existed before COVID-19 is becoming even more severe, and we are also concerned about how unequal the impact is.
“Countries and the international development community must invest more and invest better in education systems and strengthen the link between spending and learning and other human capital outcomes,” Murthi urged.
EFW notes that global spending on education has increased over the last 10 years, but it says the signs are that the pandemic may interrupt this upward trend.
The report says funding for education has grown most rapidly in low- and lower-middle-income countries, where the gaps between the funding needed to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and current allocations are the widest.
“The deterioration in government finances over the medium-term suggests that without concerted efforts to prioritize education, the outlook for mobilizing the domestic resources required for education will worsen,” the report warns.
It says that aid for education has increased by 21 per cent over the last 10 years.
It also says that disbursements had increased rapidly in the 2000s and fell between 2010 and 2014 in the aftermath of the great financial crisis.
However, since 2014, the report says aid to education has increased by 30 per cent, reaching its highest recorded level of US$15.9 billion in 2019.
“However, fiscal constraints, other sectoral needs, and changes in student mobility patterns suggest that external aid for education might fall at a time when it is needed most,” the joint report says.
“External financing is key to support the educational opportunities of the world’s poorest,” said Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General at UNESCO. “Yet donor countries are likely – and some have already begun – to shift their budget away from aid to domestic priorities. Health and other emergencies are also competing for funds.
“We foresee a challenging environment for countries reliant on education aid,” she added, stating that UNESCO estimates that it may fall by US$ 2 billion from its peak in 2020 and not return to 2018 levels for another six years.”