COVID-19 has taken a grueling, global toll on education, disrupting learning from pre-schools to universities the world over. Despite both the role of education in economic recovery and transformation and the importance of the school ecosystem—from students and teachers to parents and personnel—for communities and the society at large, the education and training sector has been given minor attention in governments’ fiscal responses to the crisis. Based on survey responses from governments (February and March 2021), UNESCO estimates that only 2% of COVID-19 stimulus package funding worldwide went to education. A substantial number of surveyed countries (41%) did not allocate any funding to education in their fiscal responses. Of the countries that did, most were high-income economies. 93% of the total invested in education (or US$ 264 of 280 billion) have occurred in these wealthy countries, which allocated much more per-pupil funding for education out of their packages.
Such disparities in financing threatens to further exacerbate existing educational inequalities across countries. Education systems in lower-income countries are therefore more likely to experience wider and deeper impact on their children’s and youth’s learning and participation in education, which will, in turn, affect the generation of a demographic dividend and eventually the human capital required to support the early recovery and sustainable transformation of the economy.
Some countries could leverage their spending of stimulus funds to innovate higher levels of education and diversify learning platforms and modalities, such as hybrid education. Other countries—faced with limited resource and competing priorities—could focus on basic coping measures such as school sanitation and primary education only. For example, the Republic of Korea deployed additional funds to further improve digital infrastructure, develop KMOOC or Korean open online curricula, and provide per-pupil distance learning subsidies. Côte d’Ivoire directed their spending to implement remote learning programmes through television and support the most vulnerable students with household packages such as electricity and water bills and hygiene kits for girls.
The post-COVID era will see significant social and economic transformations, and the education and training sector will once again be called upon to respond to these new realities. Education must be a critical component of pandemic recovery planning and financing, so as to meaningfully contribute to shaping the resilient, responsive, inclusive societies and economies.
UNESCO will continue collecting data and advocating for the expansion of allocations to education and training in the fiscal responses to COVID-19, for investing in learning is investing in a strong, sustainable future.