This piece is written by Prof Pauline Rose and Asma Zubairi, education research consultant, Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge
With the world’s attention on the need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, we argue that there is one indicator that should be ignored if the overall aim of the goals of leaving no one behind is to be achieved: this indicator is associated with SDG target 4b, which calls for donors to spend more on higher education scholarships.
Not only is funding for these scholarships already substantial, but it rarely reaches the poorest and is at the expense of funds reaching other parts of the education system, which benefit those who most need them.
The decline in education aid needs to be reversed
The bad news that education aid is once more on the decline is a serious cause for concern. This was highlighted at a recent meeting in Sweden, a donor that is not only reducing its aid overall but also cutting back countries it supports from eight to just five. And its cut in aid is hitting basic education the hardest. Unfortunately this pattern is all too common, with Sweden following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, which has dramatically withdrawn its support to education in recent years, from being one of the most important donors to basic education.
The overall reduction in total education aid has not been evenly spread, and so is likely to hit the poorest the most. Basic education has fallen from a high of US$6.2 billion in 2010 to US$5.3 billion in 2014, while aid to higher education has experienced a more modest decline: from US$5.6 billion to US$4.9 billion over the same period.
A large share of education aid never leaves the donor country
Around 70% of aid to higher education is spent on scholarships for students studying in donor countries. While aid to scholarships has increased since 2006, aid to higher education spent within recipient countries has declined: between 2006 and 2014, funding for scholarships has increased by an average of 0.7% annually, while direct aid for higher education spent in recipient countries themselves fell on average by 4% every year over the same period.
Given that aid spent on scholarships does not even leave donor countries, it is not used to improve the higher education systems of the poorest countries. It should be emphasised that the argument here is not that such scholarships are not desirable, but rather that funds should not come from aid, which ought to be focused on strategies aimed at eradicating poverty within developing countries.
The high share of education aid earmarked for scholarships means that a large part of aid is not spent within recipient countries, unlike for other sectors (Figure 1). Country programmable aid – that aid which reaches recipient countries – accounted for just 68% of education aid in 2014; this compares to 92% for aid disbursed for water and sanitation and 86% for health.
To benefit the poorest, aid must be reallocated from higher education scholarships to basic education
The spotlight needs to be cast on a reallocation of resources for higher education scholarships for four reasons. First, the resources allocated are substantial: in 2014 it amounted to US$2.8 billion, which is far more than the decline in overall aid.
Second, more than three-quarters of this aid is spent on students from middle income countries with those from low-income countries hardly benefiting. China, Morocco, Algeria and India alone accounted for one-quarter of all aid disbursements for scholarships.
And third, the spending is likely to be regressive given that, within poor countries, extremely few of the most disadvantaged make it to higher education due to lack of opportunities to quality education at the primary let alone secondary level. As a result, in many low income countries, almost no poor young people gain access to higher education.
Target 4b of Sustainable Development Goal 4 should be ignored
Particularly worrisome is the fact that the distortion of aid to education away from basic education towards scholarships for higher education is actually promoted by the Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically the indicator for target 4b aims to measure the volume of official development assistance flows for scholarships by sector and type of study.
In a context of declining aid flows, one implication of this target is that, if achieved, the poorest will face a double whammy of receiving an even smaller share of a shrinking aid pie. Meanwhile, the privileged few who make it to higher education, and particularly those who have the chance to study in rich countries, will benefit.
The implications of this distortion deserve far more attention than has so far been given. If donors are to do their part to ensure goals achieve their intention of leaving no one behind, they need to focus on strengthening access to good quality education for the most disadvantaged in primary schools where millions are still not learning.
Extending beyond this, more resources need to be allocated to early childhood education, which has proven success in making sure children are ready to learn, and so narrow inequalities in school. Yet, at present early childhood education only receives around 1% of education aid – in stark contrast to scholarships to higher education which receives just over one quarter of the overall education aid pie.
And while aid to secondary education has been increasing, it remains insufficient to support the growing numbers of first-generation learners reaching this level. As a result of failures early in the system, an estimated 200 million young people have left school before achieving basic literacy and numeracy skills, yet only around 3% of education aid is spent on giving them a second chance.
The Education Commission gives hope for the future
There is hope on the horizon. The Education Commission Report due to be presented to Ban Ki-Moon at the United General Assembly in September this year, with the backing of prominent Commissioners (including the Chair of the Global Partnership for Education Board, Julia Gillard), promises to deliver strong recommendations to donors and governments alike on the importance of investing in education.
Let’s hope world leaders take note, and follow up with urgent action before it is too late, both in reversing the aid decline and re-orienting resources to parts of the education system most likely to benefit the next generation of disadvantaged children and young people who will otherwise, once more, be left behind.