How to trans­form an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A week, it is said, is a long time in pol­i­tics. That was cer­tainly the case at the end of last month, when, in a sin­gle day, the United King­dom voted to leave the Euro­pean Union, its prime min­is­ter, David Cameron, an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion, and Bri­tain and Europe, not to men­tion global mar­kets, were thrown into tur­moil.

When it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, by con­trast, a week can be the blink of an eye. Change hap­pens over years, if not decades – and per­haps not even then. But, if suc­cess­ful, the es­tab­lish­ment of a well-func­tion­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem can change a coun­try’s face – and re­de­fine its fate.

That is what hap­pened in my coun­try, Tan­za­nia. From 2000 to 2009, pri­mary-school en­rol­ment rates in Tan­za­nia more than dou­bled, from just over 4 mil­lion pupils to 8.5 mil­lion, or 96% of all pri­mary-school-age chil­dren. In other words, at the pri­mary level, Tan­za­nia now boasts near-full en­rol­ment. Sim­i­lar progress can be seen at the sec­ondary level. In­deed, over the same nine-year pe­riod, the num­ber of sec­ondary schools in Tan­za­nia more than quadru­pled, from 927 to 4,102, and en­rol­ment surged, from just over 250,000 stu­dents to nearly 1.5 mil­lion.

What changed? In short, Tan­za­nia’s lead­ers, in­clud­ing me, recog­nised the vi­tal im­por­tance of a strong ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem – and we com­mit­ted our­selves to build­ing one.

Of course, few would ar­gue that ed­u­ca­tion is not im­por­tant. But, when govern­ments are work­ing to pro­vide more tan­gi­ble ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties – say, en­sur­ing that cit­i­zens have re­li­able ac­cess to clean drink­ing wa­ter or road links to mar­kets and hos­pi­tals – ed­u­ca­tional re­form can of­ten fall by the way­side. Given ed­u­ca­tion’s un­matched po­ten­tial to en­hance a coun­try’s prospects, this is a mis­take.

It is this un­der­stand­ing that im­pelled me, as Pres­i­dent of Tan­za­nia, to make ed­u­ca­tion my num­ber one pri­or­ity. It was not an easy de­ci­sion. I knew that some peo­ple would dis­agree with this ap­proach, pre­fer­ring to al­lo­cate more of Tan­za­nia’s lim­ited public bud­get to build­ing wider high­ways or taller govern­ment build­ings, or to ex­pand­ing the mil­i­tary.

But I also knew that in­vest­ing in ed­u­ca­tion

meant in­vest­ing in my coun­try’s fu­ture, so I de­cided that, rather than sink­ing a great deal of money, some­times un­pro­duc­tively, into these other ar­eas, we would com­mit 20% of the an­nual bud­get to ed­u­ca­tion. Those funds were ap­plied not just to build­ing more schools, but also to build­ing bet­ter schools, through in­vest­ment in teach­ers, books, and tech­nol­ogy. Af­ter all, sim­ply en­rolling more kids would mean lit­tle if they were not given all the tools they needed to suc­ceed.

Tan­za­nia can serve as a use­ful model for other coun­tries seek­ing to up­grade their ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems. But, although we achieved suc­cess on a lim­ited bud­get, the chal­lenge that fis­cal con­straints can pose should not be un­der­es­ti­mated – es­pe­cially for the low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries, of­ten in Africa, that face the big­gest ed­u­ca­tional chal­lenges to­day.

As a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Fi­nanc­ing Global Ed­u­ca­tion Op­por­tu­nity, I have seen first­hand how of­ten govern­ments’ de­sire to move ed­u­ca­tion up their list of pri­or­i­ties is thwarted by fear of bud­getary short­falls and do­mes­tic pres­sure. As a re­sult, prom­ises to achieve univer­sal pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion are con­sis­tently de­ferred.

When a govern­ment com­mits to im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion, it is bet­ting that equip­ping its cit­i­zens for an un­know­able fu­ture will yield broad­based, so­ci­ety-wide progress. This is good not only for the coun­try it­self, but also for its neigh­bours, for which a more sta­ble and pros­per­ous neigh­bour­hood can only be ben­e­fi­cial. In fact, given the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of to­day’s global econ­omy, bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion in one coun­try can bring ben­e­fits far beyond re­gional bor­ders.

Clearly, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has an in­ter­est in sup­port­ing any govern­ment that makes the os­ten­si­bly ob­vi­ous, yet prac­ti­cally dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to place ed­u­ca­tion at the fore­front of its agenda. And, thanks to the vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship of Nor­we­gian Prime Min­is­ter Erna Sol­berg, this im­per­a­tive is re­ceiv­ing the at­ten­tion it de­serves. In­deed, it will be a cen­tral theme at this week’s fi­nanc­ing com­mis­sion sum­mit in Oslo.

Tan­za­nia’s ex­pe­ri­ence proves that trans­form­ing a coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is pos­si­ble, even if that coun­try faces se­vere fis­cal con­straints. It is not quick or easy, and it of­ten re­quires dif­fi­cult trade-offs. But with a strong and sus­tained com­mit­ment to ful­fil the prom­ise of univer­sal pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion – and a lit­tle in­ter­na­tional sup­port – govern­ments can en­sure hap­pier, more pros­per­ous lives for their coun­tries’ young peo­ple. One hopes that Tan­za­nia is the first in a wave of coun­tries putting ed­u­ca­tion first.

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