Usually, we believe that more education means greater economic prosperity, a supposition that suggests that a country with a larger education spend should develop quicker. Turning to advanced economies like the United States and Germany makes this point seem even more valid, where it appears that having a more knowledge-driven economy directly translates to better socioeconomic indicators.
That said, the link between spending on education and development may not be as obvious as we think, especially when we’re dealing with developing countries like Nigeria.
Learn to Earn
In advanced economies, the story is simpler. Education is considered to be an investment, where the initial capital or cost is your time and fees. The hope is that when you graduate, your expected return would come in terms of higher wages than those with lower educational attainment than you. Numerous studies in the western world find that the return to one year of schooling is around 10%. Moreover, wider society also benefits as better-educated citizens who become employed in higher-skilled jobs and earn higher incomes could potentially increase tax revenues. More educated societies tend to be more peaceful, productive and healthier too.
It all sounds good, but this is not the story in many African countries, where the immediate requirement for survival leads to opting for domestic work over education. Many families place considerably more weight on the present cost of education than on its future benefits. On an aggregate level, governments have attempted to progressively increase education spending with the aim of unlocking development opportunities. The results have been mixed, a pointer to the reality that simply increasing education spending is not the panacea to a dismal education system.
As mentioned earlier, education comes at a cost today, so that you can reap the benefits in the future – an example of an intertemporal choice. Unfortunately, we tend to struggle with these. The education choice is more complicated because parents pay most of the costs of education, whereas the kids feel most of the obvious benefits. Since parents make the education choice, it is not hard to see scenarios where they rather their kids work and earn today than pay for them to go to school.
Acknowledging these psychological and social barriers shows us that government spending on its own may not translate into better-educated people.
Even with the Universal Basic Education (UBE) policy that is expected to cater to 80% of children who require education, other expenses such as school meals and transport costs make the cost of educating children an unnecessary burden or a bad investment for some families. So, it is not surprising that even when school enrollment appears to be on the rise when the government intervenes, many do not complete the academic cycle. Dropout rates continue to show that increasing the education budget is not the be all, end all to achieving educational success. Again, increased spending alone cannot educate people, understanding why our kids cannot stay in school is important too.
Take Ghana's efforts as an example. The country's ambitious programs, such as capitation grants and the Ghana Education Trust Fund, have managed to get the net enrolment ratio to 82%. As promising as this looks, it is negated by the fact that only 50% of children complete primary school.
Essentially, if Nigerian policymakers are to reform the education sector, it would take more than just approaching the challenge as a game of numbers. To help the 10.5 million Nigerian children that are out of school, policymakers need to understand what their unique conditions are and how best to reverse the growing trend of low school attendance.
School Out, Social Welfare In
One way to do this would be to engage in previous (or simultaneous) investment elsewhere, social welfare for example. Developing countries like Brazil already offer some inspiration for this with programs such as Bolsa Familia, which reward poor families with an income in exchange for sending their kids to school. So far, the conditional cash transfer scheme has in some way, helped the state to target the needy more specifically by lowering the effective cost of sending their kids to school.
However, this cannot be seen as a magic bullet. Cynics would be forgiven for thinking that such programs would not achieve their intended outcomes due to the pervasiveness of corruption in Nigeria. Still, President Buhari's Federal Government Home-Grown School Feeding program has managed to make some headway with this. So far, the program has made notable progress in Osun State, through its positive impact on the health standards of students in participating schools – the less said about other states, the better. With more robust implementation, social welfare programs ought to be considered a crucial element in reducing the opportunity cost of attending school.
Students at our public schools are all too familiar with sub-standard education, be it absent teachers or lowered exam requirements. These are enough to make school attendance less appealing, particularly amongst those in the lower-income bracket. While driving Nigeria's development can begin in the classroom, it would require more effort than just spending money on salaries paid to poorly trained teachers. To show genuine commitment, Nigerian policymakers need to focus on the kinds of expenditure that would be better in producing the results we want. This would involve making smarter investments to create educational systems that have been adjusted to accommodate the realities facing low-income families.