When education funding is cut, everyone pays the price

By Ray Douse, Co-Founder of Whizz Education

The challenges that educators face today must not be divorced from other priorities. In the US, for example, the Biden administration’s multi-pronged policy agenda is demonstrative of education’s interconnectedness with other sectors. As well as tackling COVID-19 head-on, President Biden has vowed to address the economic impacts of the pandemic, while also seeking solutions to climate change and undertaking a national reckoning on issues of equity and social justice.

In a global context, too, our educational agenda must exist in harmony with other sector goals. As reported by UNESCO, some two-thirds of low and middle income countries are cutting educational expenditure as they seek to balance their budgets in light of significant, unprecedented public health investment. A tragic knock-on effect of the pandemic is that education has been squeezed into the margins, falsely pitted against short-term health and economic objectives.

The staggering extent of learning loss, experienced disproportionately by low-income communities, is by now well established. The understated subplot is the economic consequences of disruption to students’ learning. According to one initial estimate from economist Eric Hanushek, students who experience learning losses today may face a three percent reduction in lifetime earnings. Whole nations face the prospect of a 1.5 percent reduction in annual GDP for the rest of the century. As former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once remarked: ‘Education is the best economic policy there is’.

The societal impacts of the pandemic are, of course, many. Less developed countries are seeing a marked decline in living standards, while 10 million more girls are at risk of child marriage and teenage pregnancy rates are poised to rise. Meanwhile, over 330 million children are at risk of impact to their mental health. In the US, gradual defunding of education over the years has resulted in increased rates of public violence. In the backdrop of these challenges is the real and present threat of climate change, the proliferation of misinformation, state-sanctioned prejudice towards minority groups and the rise of authoritarianism around the world.

Youth advocacy is essential to safeguarding society from existential threats to social cohesion and to our environment. But this, in turn, depends on an informed and conscientious citizenry, the underpinning of which is a robust and sustainable education system. If we heed Nelson Mandela’s characterisation of education as ‘the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ then we must reverse our intent with regards to education funding. A critical lesson of the pandemic is that we need to seize upon educational innovation to provide remote learning options during public health crises.

The key asks of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education for all) have been made explicit. Governments must drive efforts to expand education recovery packages, and there is also a profound role for the private sector to play too. We know what needs to be done and we will pay a collective price for failing to invest in the potential of today’s youth (who, after all, will be tomorrow’s leaders).