As Principal of NextLevelSolutions, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion organized by through the Jamaican Teachers Association, on the funding of education. The team led by Dr. Charmaine Gooden-Montieth did a fantastic job in bringing together a cross section of highly committed and important stakeholders. The event, which had participation from the Ministry of Education (MOE), teachers, the leader of a tertiary institution, parents-teachers ‘association representation, provided some important insight of the challenges faced by the country and arguable other countries ion the region. What follows is the information I offered with a few subsequent adjustments for context, based on information provided during the event. The recommendations remained essentially unchanged. While this piece is focused only on Jamaica, the realities elsewhere are similar and therefore it carries instructive value and hopefully recommendations that may be adaptable.
Education is critical to the growth and development of all nations. Education wields the power to change the fate of individuals, communities and countries at large. The region as a whole has produced fantastic scholars and many world-beaters but as a collective has failed significantly in living up to its potential. Jamaica, like most other regional countries, has been long been challenged in funding its education system. While a significant proportion of its national budget has been consistently allocated to education, it is simply proven insufficient. The country is challenged due to the general state of national resources and economic growth and development. .
The Current pandemic and global financial crisis has significantly exacerbated the situation. A country on a positive trajectory, following two successful treatments of an IMF program saw significant gains eroded, buffers and surpluses redirected toward fiscals support must now still grapple with the challenges of righting the economic ship of state. What the crisis has shown clearly, however, is maybe that there must be a careful rethink of how funding will be secured especially for advancing the educational apparatus of the nation. The Challenges are real, the obstacles are many, and the future demands creative, practical and actionable solutions. It is time for creative action.
Funding of education within the context of current day Jamaica is not simply a consideration of where new or additional monies will come from but needs a careful look at the economic state of the country. The issues faced and the economic hole the country find itself in, on the midst of this crisis, demands a suite of future treatment which will allow it to earn its ways earned out or more likely to earn itself into a better position. It is a fact no country with above average global standing in education that is a poor country. Consider some of the leaders in global educational ratings, China, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Canada, Singapore and USA to a lesser extent; they are all well developed economies. Countries such as Finland, Estonia, Singapore and Norway, especially the former, are recognized trailblazers in educational achievements. On analysis, it is clear that they have been very deliberate in their approach to improving education, which then has a ripple effect on their economies. However, let us never lose sight of the fact that their economies are well developed. These are rich counties.
This is important when we consider educational spend and what is considered to be a reasonable proportion by independent international bodies. 5% to 7% is considered reasonable. Jamaica is deemed to be within that acceptable range. Per World Bank statistics in 2018, Jamaica spent 5.4% of its GDP on education. However, consider the fact that the economy of Singapore is economy over $300B USD compared to a $14.3B USD Jamaican economy. Contrast, from the same source, Singapore’s 2.9% spend in 2013. In my view, the point is easily made. The growth of the economy is fundamental to improved funding of the education. Any serious discussion on this matter that does not fundamentally address economic development is sub-optimal and we readily understand the vicious/vitreous cycle connection between the two.
The theme for the 2021 Global Action Week for Education (GAWE), the impetus behind a week of activity that culminated in the panel discussion, is education financing. The call is for urgent action underlined by a number of “topline recommendations for governments”. These, taken from the GAWE publication, are as follows: “Increase state funding for education to 20% of public expenditure. Increase their tax base in order to increase resources, working towards a minimum tax-to-GDP ratio of 20%. Enable urgent debt cancellation for the least developed countries and Debt alleviation for middle and upper-middle-income countries. Ensure inclusive education systems through equitable financing and programmes that prioritises the most marginalized. Provide free quality education for all and end the trend towards the privatization and commercialization of education. Improve the quality of teaching through adequate recruitment, remuneration and continued teacher training. Listen and respond to the voices of those affected. Space must be allowed for individuals and civil society to speak up. Developed countries must continue to work towards the goal of 0.7% overseas aid with 20% of this spent on education, and increasing their contributions to the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait.”
In principle, it would be difficult to disagree with these aspirational recommendations. Careful analysis will show that they point to and uncover many of the fundamental challenges facing countries, especially low-income countries such as Jamaica and others within the region. There are however some harsh realities which at least makes the timing for implementation critical. Currently in the midst of a global financial crisis, with the highest level of demand for debt in many decades and continues pressure on both the supply and demand side of many economies, fundamental shifts in fiscal allocation and debt alleviation programs are unlikely at this stage. However, these recommendations, and other initiatives, should certainly be pursued to the extent possible and definitely efforts to secure future commitment in this regard should be ongoing. It is my strongly held opinion that looking inwardly, in more ways that are creative is the approach likely to yield the greatest impact under any time horizon considered. For example, the efficacy of securing a 20% share of the budget for education or having a tax space of 20% revenue to GDP is currently very challenging and highly dependent on economic growth. Without growth, the implementation of these metrics will create its own set of challenges that will terminate in increased debt and its attendant pressures. Note that for the fiscal year 2021/2022, Jamaica’s MOE budget, the single largest allocation outside of the Ministry of finance was J$117B. This though would require another J$49B to satisfy the 20% recommendation, with revenue to GDP already beyond 20%. The latter is instructive of the fiscal space available to government for raising and allocating additional funding. Growth, earning its way out is an imperative. However, the matter of funding is extremely urgent and growth will not move fast enough in this or any other environment to compensate. Creativity is therefore necessary as the country tackles strategies for improving funding. Given the natural tensions at play, it is important that all stakeholders become comfortable with this idea as they work together to find viable solutions. There was a clear consensus from the event that alternative means of funding is the way to go.
I think that the funding of education must now become more of a collective effort. It is evident given the state of the economy that the government cannot do it alone. There must be a more active collaboration between the public and private sector with facilitative space carved out for the participation of the citizenry, local and international. The state of the national finances and the observed weaknesses and lack in the education system clearly evidences this. Left alone to the generous but limited efforts of the government the system will continue failing; the physical infrastructure will continue to show collapse faster than remedial action can compensate; there will be a perennial lack of resources, and teachers, with challenging pay scales will remain generally demotivated. The country must look beyond the scope of the traditional budgetary allowance for funding. What follows are suggestions which if creatively employed could help solve some of the challenges.
One good starting point is to leverage the general attractiveness of the country for foreign direct investments (FDI). All heads of agreement should clearly have an element educational funding earmarked. This should be directed at the development or redevelopment of physical educational infrastructure. Such a move would immediately create greater space for non-capital spending and give the authorities more maneuvering room to creatively expand the impact of the national budget. Clearly, this must be done without increasing concessions and therefore adversely impacting tax flows. Fundamentally, though the government must grow the economy. Over the last decade, and well beyond that, the country has grown very anemically. Without real growth the current situations will continue, a state where there is always lacking. Let us remind ourselves of the leading performers discussed above. Countries with strong educational system have strong economies. To understand this one only needs to take a close look at the results if the two IMF programs, success without growth. Ultimately, if there were gains it means someone pays. Such successes were ultimately won on the back of the citizens. When the country grows, there is more resource for funding education. Economic growth is therefore an important foundational imperative.