While education worldwide, especially for girls, has improved, the gap between Africa and the rest of the world is wide and the continent doesn’t appear to be catching up. In fact, it is falling further behind.
From 1960 to 2015, the gap between the average number of years of education obtained by African adults aged 25 and above and that of the rest of the world increased from two to three years. Today African adults have, on average, five years of education while the rest of the world has around eight.
Globally the disparities are large. Adults in North America and Europe have 13 and 11 years respectively, while those in South Asia have seven years. Education levels are improving everywhere, but more slowly in Africa than anywhere else.
Quality of education aside, countries now take less time to improve average years of education than in the past. Whereas it took around 17 years to increase average education levels in poor countries by one year in the 1960s and ’70s, it now takes around 11 years. However while the rate of progress has generally speeded up, Africa is falling further behind and will continue to do so, in part because of rapid population growth.
There are many well-known benefits of education. First, education affects demography through improved health (it reduces mortality) and reduced fertility rates (there are fewer children per female within childbearing age, meaning parents can better look after their children). In turn, demography affects improved education systems and opportunities in terms of size and characteristics of the school-going age of the population. Slower growth in pupil numbers allows poorer countries to cope with the requirement for more schools, books, teachers and other facilities.
Second, educational gains lead to improved productivity. A more literate and skilled workforce is more productive and can be engaged in higher value-add activities. For example, with grade 12 it may be possible to staff a call centre; with grades 4 to 6, manual labour is probably the only option.
Third, better-educated people can increase their incomes, thus improving their economic circumstances. The relationship between higher levels of education and income is strong and almost linear. As workers progress from primary to secondary and eventually tertiary education, they are better positioned to increase earnings, sometimes dramatically. Education also promotes equity and democracy. A better educated citizenry can make more informed political choices.
Finally, improved levels of education reduce social inequalities where individuals can progress and be judged based on merit, with less importance being put on their social backgrounds, standing or other characteristics such as religion, race or caste.
Beyond these general positive features, attaining secondary education for females has numerous additional benefits. According to a widely quoted 1995 study by K Subbarao and Laura Raney, completion of secondary education would reduce the total fertility rate among women in developing nations by 26%. By comparison, doubling access to family planning would decrease the total fertility rate by only half that number.
Currently, only 14% of Africa’s low-income female population of the appropriate age group graduate from secondary school. For females in lower-middle-income Africa the portion is 48% and in upper-middle-income African countries it is 57%. The International Futures forecasting system from which these trends are extracted calculates that 122 million Africans are missing secondary school, slightly more than half of whom are female.
Economically, female education increases income of households when women enter the workforce and are gainfully employed. A 2003 study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 19 countries points out that a country’s long-term economic growth increases by 3.7% for every year that the adult population’s average years of schooling increases. Female education should therefore be a cornerstone of any nation’s strategy to ensure women are empowered economically, socially and intellectually.
So how does Africa catch up with progress elsewhere?
More rapid economic growth rates would allow African governments to spend more money on education. Improved healthcare, the provision of water and sanitation and access to modern contraceptives would aid these efforts as they would reduce fertility rates over time. Fewer children would reduce the burden of spreading money too thinly, allowing those who enter the system to do better.
Urbanisation accompanied by improved facilities and services like water, electricity and educational material would promote quality education. Students would be better able to access amenities like the internet to aid learning – a resource that is largely absent and/or expensive in rural regions. This way, efficient education planning by these under-resourced governments can be achieved. More donor aid would also help.
But even more is needed for Africa to close its enduring education deficit compared to the rest of the world.
Given current backlogs and budgets, Africa would simply not be able to build enough schools and train enough teachers at the scale that is required. Neither would it be able to provide resources such as books and laboratories and all the associated support structures needed for functioning schools at that scale.
Some experts say Africa may be able to catch up by tapping into the digital revolution. Direct access to world-class education material should provide some added momentum. But even this requires African governments to invest heavily in the provision of internet access and the means to access such material.
The 2017 United Nations Children’s Fund report on the state of the world’s children points to the potential of information and communication technology to transform education by ‘expanding access to high-quality educational content, including textbooks, video material and remote instruction, and at a much lower cost than in the past’. The report warns, however, that technology cannot fix education without support from ‘strong teachers, motivated learners and sound pedagogy’.
Equally important, societies need to recognise the value of education, especially of girls, and provide an enabling environment to ensure gender equity in education. In north-east Nigeria, girls already lag behind boys in attendance, because of cultural barriers, the belief that girls’ education isn’t that important and the determined efforts by Boko Haram to deny education to females.
Whatever the combination of solutions, African governments will need to get serious about improving access to education. More of the same is not enough if the continent is to catch up with progress elsewhere.
Written by Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures & Innovation, ISS and chair of ISS Board of Trustees and Stellah Kwasi, Researcher, African Futures & Innovation, ISS