Oxfam welcomes the focus on education in the upcoming 2018 World Development Report (WDR). Supporting countries to achieve universal, equitable high-quality public education must be a core priority for the World Bank Group if it is to achieve its twin goals of ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity. It is also foundational to the achievement of the Sustainable Development agenda.
Oxfam also welcomes the concept note’s nuanced discussion of a number of difficult issues in the education sector, including the treatment of high-stakes standardized testing, the training of teachers and the role of technology in the classroom. We appreciate in particular the acknowledgement that education is a human right and has intrinsic value beyond economic returns, and the discussion of the role that interventions outside the education sector, such as early childhood health and nutrition, play in education outcomes.
However, we have a number of fundamental concerns related to the framing and direction of the report. Overall, we are concerned that the concept note does not closely align the WDR with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education and its Framework for Action (FFA), which represents the global consensus of governments, civil society and other key stakeholders on priorities in the education sector. In particular we would like to see significant changes to the treatment of the following concerns.
1. Unacceptable silence on the importance of increased financing for education
• The WDR should highlight sustainable financing as a key prerequisite for quality education and learning, and unequivocally call for increased investment in education. The concept note considers the ‘learning crisis’ in isolation and ignores the role of inadequate financing in creating the real quality challenges facing many education systems. Evidence from recent PISA results underlines what should already be obvious: below a certain expenditure threshold, learning outcomes in science and math are strongly correlated with national per-student expenditure on education. The vast majority of low- and middle-income countries fall below this spending threshold.
Many low- and middle-income countries have historically failed to make adequate investments in education and many are currently spending well below the Framework for Action’s recommendation of at least 4-6% of GDP and at least 15-20% of public expenditure. The FFA noted that countries “need to reach or exceed the upper end of these benchmarks if they are to achieve the targets.” While equity and quality of education spending is also crucial, it is impossible to achieve quality education and strong learning outcomes without enough funds to ensure appropriate numbers of trained and qualified teachers, adequate facilities and basic materials – at a bare minimum. Without these basics, no amount of policy alignment or efficiency will lead to better outcomes.
Finally, public investment in education is important because of its role in fighting economic inequality: recent research on fiscal policy has found that public spending on education is equalizing in all twenty-eight low and middle-income countries studied.
• Because of its special relationship with ministries of finance, the World Bank through the WDR has a unique responsibility to relay this message clearly to governments, both South and North. By omission, the Bank is sending a loud message that education should not be a financing priority for governments and aid donors. Indeed, World Bank policy advice and IMF loan conditions during the structural adjustment era, which pushed for reduced public expenditure and greater private provision and financing of education, should be acknowledged for their contribution to low investment in education historically across the developing world. While in the early 2000s, the Bank played a positive role in championing financing for education and user fee abolition, this larger historical context should be a special reason for the WDR to be explicit about the importance of financing.
• The WDR should consider the tools available to governments and donors to increase funding allocations to education – in particular progressive tax reform and eliminating or radically reducing corporate tax incentives, as well as coordinated global tax reform. It should look at successful country examples of scaled up financing for education, such as Brazil and Ecuador. Since 2000, Brazil increased its investment in education from 10 to 18 percent of its budget, which -- combined with efforts to transfer federal funding to poorer states, and its conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia ́ -- has helped to tackle inequality in the education system and led to one of the fastest increases in learning achievements on record. Ecuador tripled its education spending from 2003 to 2010 through effective tax mobilization policies and prioritizing education in its budget.