Global Development Institute Blog

David Hulme is Executive Director of Brooks World Poverty Institute, CEO of ESID Research Centre, and Professor of Development Studies

Education is still considered a key strategy for reducing poverty by the poor. Universal primary education was included as a Millennium Development Goal, and it looks as though the new Sustainable Development Goals will aspire to provide pre-primary, primary and secondary education for all. This emphasis on quantity however is not enough. We need to ensure quality. Alongside this, education should not just be thought of as a poverty reduction tool but as central to national development. Higher education is costly but essential as national development requires a proportion of the population to be highly skilled. Like it or not public investment in the education of non-poor people has to be an element of the education budget.

Poor people commonly identify education for their children as a key household strategy but they are increasingly worried about the low quality of education. In countries like Bangladesh and India, the poor are sending children to private fee paying schools in the belief that they are of a higher quality than state schools. Families are also paying for after-school tuition as they don’t believe that private or state schools can fully provide what children need. Some very poor households invest in private tuition.

The political capacity and commitment in Bangladesh and Ghana to improve quality of schooling is being examined by the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre. When you look at these two very different contexts you can see that expanding education is a big part of the political agenda in both countries. In both countries political parties make manifesto commitments for expanding primary education, education for all and secondary education. But when you look for quality pledges, it’s not on the political agenda. There is little evidence of debates between parties and politicians, or demands from the ‘consumers’ of education related to quality. Quantity is a political priority, but quality, which is so important, isn’t spoken about. Why has quality decreased so much, and why is it so bad in many countries? If this isn’t addressed, families with incredibly low incomes will continue to spend scarce resources on private schools and private tuition despite the existence of and political commitment to ‘free’ public schools.

Education does not have the same impacts on incomes and prospects as it did twenty or twenty-five years ago. Then primary education could be seen as ‘liberational’. Back then, if you had a primary education in Bangladesh, you would be able to get a low paid job such as a clerk or cleaner. Nowadays you would need a secondary education for this…or maybe more. This is partly due to primary education being more widespread, it is no longer being limited to an elite few. It is also partly due to the quality of education decreasing and the world has changed. Primary schooling doesn’t deliver increased productivity or access to a range of different jobs as it did before.

Following up on the danger of seeing education only as a poverty reduction tool. Poverty reduction was the main focus of the MDGs and this looks to continue in to the SDGs. Thought about in this way, education can be misframed. To reduce poverty, you logically focus on primary education for all in order that individuals are able to benefit from basic education.  But education also has to be about national development. For national development – to have growth, create jobs, pay for public services and have law and order you need nationals who are training as doctors, engineers, accountants and statisticians. You need significant investment in education beyond the primary and secondary levels. Countries cannot simply say that higher education is too expensive, but have to work out the trade-offs. Education is not just about short-term poverty reduction – it has a major role in long-term national development.

To conclude, education plays a major part in global and national development and helping poor people improve their lives, but issues of quality and higher education must be addressed for it to successfully play a key role in sustainable national development.