The case for more international cooperation in education

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The SDGs call on countries to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” There are four reasons why greater collaboration is important for the education goal, SDG 4.

  1. Demographics have shifted.
    In 1950, 60 percent of the world’s children lived in high- or upper-middle-income countries and 40 percent lived in low- or lower-middle-income countries. Today that ratio is reversed: 37 percent are in well-off countries and 63 percent in poor countries. The majority of the world’s children are growing up in the most resource-constrained countries, where school systems are often stretched beyond capacity. In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, their education needs to be everyone’s concern.

  2. Financing is not aligned with needs.
    Poorer countries have a more difficult time raising revenue. On average, well-off countries collect revenue equivalent to 33 percent of their GDP, whereas poor countries collect 24 percent. Education budgets are most stressed precisely in countries with the largest and fastest growing proportion of children.

It is not that poorer countries are not making an effort. Low-income countries dedicate 17 percent of government budgets to education, compared to 13 percent in high-income countries. It is often the case that the tax and revenue base is too small and unstable relative to needs. Governments in many poor countries spend less than $200 on education per school-age child, compared to over $12,000 in wealthier countries. The differences are astounding if one considers that inputs typically associated with quality education are increasingly priced in a global marketplace—buildings, well-trained professionals, books, supplies, and technology. Greater international cooperation can help close this gap by building the capacity of governments to collect and manage revenue, and by scaling up targeted assistance for education.

  1. There is a massive shortage of teachers.
    The Education Commission estimates that 69 million teachers need to be recruited by 2030 to meet SDG 4. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia need more than 52 million teachers. Much of the existing teaching force also needs professional development: In sub-Saharan Africa, only 62 percent of primary school teachers and 45 percent of secondary school teachers are trained to teach. In some countries, the need for teachers represents half of the entire projected number of graduates from university.

A challenge of this scale—including expanding teacher training programs, supporting public policies to build a skilled and motivated teaching force, and equipping educators with technologies to improve teaching and reach more students—is ripe for greater international cooperation.

  1. Secondary and higher education needs to grow.
    The SDGs call for expansion of secondary and higher education because it builds skills, civic attitudes, and technological capacities for development.

Indeed, the countries that educated their populations a generation ago are realizing the benefits now. Countries that moved up in the World Bank’s income group classification during the last 30 years educated a much higher proportion of their populations at the secondary and higher levels by 1990 than countries which remained “trapped” in their income group. They prepared more people to take on higher-skilled, higher-wage employment. They had a larger stock of professionals across many fields needed to build a well-functioning economy and society. And their transition to more educated and more prosperous societies has been accompanied by a transition to more sustainable population growth, greater peace and security, and more progressive social and environmental attitudes.

International cooperation helped many countries universalize basic education during the 1990s and 2000s. More cooperation today could boost secondary and higher education and help build a world that is more sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous.