What price will education pay for COVID-19?

07 April 2020


Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
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Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

As the world comes to terms with the scale and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health of the global population is rightly taking priority over education for the time being. For today’s students, the coronavirus outbreak means a huge loss of learning time, with potential repercussions for their schooling and careers in the years to come. But what predictions can be made about the financial impact on education more broadly? 

According to Blandine Ledoux and Koffi Segniagbeto, IIEP specialists in education costs and financing in Paris and Dakar respectively, the crisis will have a significant impact at two different levels: 

  1. the loss of education spending for the duration of the crisis, as well as the resulting additional cost, and
  2. the expected downturn in future financial resources available to the education sector. 

They point out that ‘global inequalities in access to education will widen and the global learning crisis will be exacerbated’, disrupting progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, which calls for universal access to quality education.

How will short-term education costs be affected during the crisis?

Huge losses owing to school closures: As of 25 March 2020, 184 countries have shut down schools nationwide, affecting more than 1.5 billion learners. Most costs for the current 2019/20 school year have already been incurred (goods and services, for example, are usually purchased early on in the year; teachers who are public servants will still be paid despite closures), meaning that these expenses, for the most part, do not translate into learning however long schools are closed. If the 2020 exam cycle cannot be completed, then the full year’s spending will be impacted. It is impossible to say at this point how long the crisis will last, but if closures were to last into the next academic year, losses would of course continue to mount up.

Costs of mitigating the consequences of schools closing: Where possible, distance learning systems are being used to limit the loss of learning time. The financial cost of this varies from country to country, depending on the existing infrastructure and the level of preparedness for a crisis such as this. Ledoux and Segniagbeto explain that ‘the additional expense may be marginal for some countries, but could be substantial for others, representing an additional burden for the education system and/or families’. Governments, particularly in high-income countries, might also look to replace some in-school services (such as meals) with at-home alternatives, generating further costs. Factors like this will need to be quickly and properly assessed at country level if we are to avoid seeing inequalities in education widen, even in the short to medium term.

What will be the longer-term impact when it comes to financing the education sector?

Dramatic drop in government revenues: ‘This is probably what will have the greatest effect on the education sector in financial terms,’ according to Ledoux and Segniagbeto. They refer to the International Monetary Fund’s warning that global growth in 2020 will fall below last year’s level, and therefore so will government revenues. With so much still unknown at this stage, however, it is hard to predict by how much, and what will happen in 2021 - let alone in the years beyond. What is certain is that containment efforts to halt the spread of the disease will have a major impact on global supply and demand, and the resulting economic slowdown will have worldwide repercussions. Governments’ revenue, for example from taxes, will be severely affected, reducing the level of public spending – including on education systems – in the future.

Lower prioritization of education, nationally and internationally: Exceptional measures will have to be put in place to limit the damage to countries’ economies and healthcare systems, and these will inevitably be costly. Whether education’s share of public expenditure will remain stable (UNESCO data indicate that this was more or less the case after the financial crisis of 2008) is in doubt:

Education could become a victim of spending cuts, as money is channelled elsewhere. As ever, low-income countries are the most vulnerable.

They may suffer from an inadequate supply of education services: insufficient teacher numbers, for example, will lead to a deterioration of education quality, which is sometimes already very low. In addition, low-income countries will be doubly impacted if there is a reduction of official development assistance from high-income countries, who will have to realign their fiscal priorities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For these reasons, it is easy to see how COVID-19 will push SDG 4, and quality education for all, further out of reach of those most at risk.

What can be done to mitigate the effects of the crisis on education?

Much remains unknown at this stage in terms of the duration and scope of the crisis, and understandably the current emphasis is on slowing and stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Moreover, this crisis will affect all countries, and each nation will face different problems during the outbreak and in its aftermath. 

That said, Ledoux and Segniagbeto believe that the impact of the crisis will disproportionately affect education systems in low-income countries: ‘the risk to the most marginalized populations is huge, and governments need to pay close attention to the situation in their own country.’ One such situation is the danger of temporarily interrupted learning becoming permanent. Many students may not return to the classroom even once the crisis is resolved, increasing the numbers of out-of-school children and youth. Girls may be disproportionately among them, halting progress made in addressing gender disparities in education.

Blandine Ledoux and Koffi Segniagbeto also point out that the crisis will provide lessons that can be used as opportunities. ‘It has the potential to transform educational service delivery in many countries, especially distance learning. Countries that are able to take advantage of this will prepare themselves well for the future of education in the 21st century.’ In addition, they add, ‘school health has never received the attention it deserves in the educational programmes of developing countries. This crisis is undoubtedly an opportunity to redesign curricula to give school health the place it deserves.’

While the full repercussions of COVID-19 are yet to be seen, IIEP’s work with planners and policy-makers will continue, adapting to the situation as it evolves in each country. The world’s education sector must learn quickly if it is to effectively overcome the unprecedented – and largely unknown –challenge now facing it.

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