Donor programs must include investments in higher education
The global education sector continues to go through a tumultuous period of declining funding and resource allocation, as competing priorities such as health, humanitarian aid and other social services require urgent financial responses from the international community. Although most education needs are funded at the national level, international target setting and funding have helped lower middle-income countries prioritize primary and secondary education. However, the financing needs of higher education have not been given so much importance. Strong higher education is essential for building effective institutions, capacity building and long-term self-reliance in emerging economies like Bangladesh. This is why international aid in the education sector must give priority to higher education.
There are many reasons why funding for higher education is narrow in the international aid architecture, as well as in national budgets. The impact of higher education is long term and, therefore, tangible returns on investment are difficult to measure. Therefore, investing in education as part of aid is incongruous, as the goal of many aid initiatives is to bring about rapid, short-term change. International funding for education has been primarily oriented towards producing results that would meet the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as those of donor countries or organizations. The development agenda that defines the work for lower middle-income countries is often guided by donor priorities, and Bangladesh’s education sector is no exception. Thus, funding initiatives are performance-based and rarely needs-based.
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Primary education is of concern to a large portion of international aid allocations to education because of the interests of the global community, and also because of the ease with which the impacts of investment can be measured. Article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that basic education is a fundamental human right and a public good, but the following declaration states that “higher education must also be accessible to all on the basis of merit ”. This merit-based framing of higher education exposes the sector more to market forces and makes it less of a public responsibility. The aspect of education as a basic human right is blurred for higher education because access is not just based on merit – academic excellence is often determined by life’s opportunities and wealth family.
In addition, the opportunity cost of being in school for longer and more immediate labor market needs of a developing economy, the need to address primary and secondary education levels to ensure that there are sufficiently educated and interested students to pursue higher education; and the stages of development of the national economy, all of these factors limit the prospects of international assistance to higher education. Assessments of student and teacher performance at primary and secondary levels are also more standardized and have easily identifiable quantitative measures. Therefore, it may be easier to make outcome-based funding decisions for lower education levels. Global education policy architects like the World Bank direct international aid programs, and their assessment of the effectiveness of education programs since the 1980s still informs much of spending patterns and priorities. World Bank studies have found that investing in primary education produces more social capital for young people than investments in higher education, so that only 2.7% of the international development budget is spent on Higher Education.
The priorities of international development partners may also match national spending patterns for education. In Bangladesh’s last national budget, 11.9% was allocated to education spending. The allocation of domestic expenditure for primary education has its own separate category in the budget, but the budgets for secondary and higher education are merged. As much as the governments of the countries of the South celebrate the success of higher enrollment rates at the primary level, this success overlooks the funding problems that limit the capacity of the education system to retain students and improve the quality of learning.
Retention of students in the education system is essential for higher education. In addition, returns on investment from primary education are limited unless high quality tertiary education is funded, as returns on investment are lower for workers who have only had primary education in capital-poor countries. Building higher education infrastructure will empower countries, because universities are also research institutions. Having better higher education options in the country can help prevent a larger brain drain and help university graduates meet high skill demands for positions that remain vacant. The dearth of international aid and investment in higher education is also a testament to the lingering problems of low-skilled labor and large-scale international migration, leading to a Bangladeshi diaspora labor market responding to informal economies. cross-border. International education finance initiatives continue to prioritize primary and secondary education levels without taking into account the growth aspirations of lower-middle-income countries. Global aid spending should focus on higher education institutions, as investing in strong research infrastructure at university level would have spillover effects on other levels of education and make countries beneficiaries of the system. self-help.
Another key rationale for prioritizing international donor investments in higher education is that such an investment would have a more direct impact on improving institutions and policies at the system level of the recipient country. Aid effectiveness research has shown that the impact of international aid on economic growth depends on the institutions and policies of the recipient country. The emphasis must be on financing post-secondary education so that Bangladesh can build stronger institutions and reap the benefits of international aid in other sectors. The creation of self-sustaining and stronger national institutions will also provide Bangladesh with leverage in negotiations with bilateral and multilateral aid providers. Having strong tertiary institutions will enable local leaders to establish national coordination systems involving international donors. The partnership framework adopted by the World Bank to develop a growth strategy for Bangladesh emphasizes strengthening human and social capital. The role of a strong higher education infrastructure is integral to building capacity and creating a reliable service sector to achieve this development goal.
While there are partnership-based initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Education Cannot Wait (ECW) to prioritize quality basic education, greater collaboration between donors and recipients of international aid is needed to fund higher education, and this could start with the engagement of international donors with the University Grants Commission. Major education donors, like Germany, continue to devote the bulk of their higher education aid to scholarships for international students from emerging economies to study at German universities. However, national universities need to be strengthened and transformed into stronger educational and research institutions. Donor countries, through bilateral and multilateral agreements, have multiple mechanisms for providing international assistance to meet education needs. Creative funding models through the creation of foundations such as the Asian University Foundation for Women can ensure effective ways to engage the global private sector in funding higher education for marginalized communities.
The effect of a strong higher education can be reflected in improved teaching, more professional development opportunities and for young adults to have a meaningful and holistic learning experience. Centering education in the architecture of international aid by emphasizing higher education is thus a real step towards the possibility for beneficiary countries to develop their human capital and to be autonomous.
Sarzah Yeasmin is a Boston-based Bangladeshi writer and student studying education policy at Harvard University. She is the coordinator of the University’s Innovations in Government program.