With very few exceptions (perhaps Sweden and, until recently, Switzerland), adult education has not been a major priority for bilateral or multilateral donors over the past 30 years. As such, the more the discourse on education financing focuses on international aid and loans, the more adult learning will be overlooked. But the vast majority of spending on education is raised domestically – so why do aid donors have so much leverage? In part this is to do with the nature of education budgets.
The largest single item on every education budget is teachers’ salaries – making up 73% of basic education spending in low and middle income countries (Education Commission 2016, p. 70) – and in 32 countries teacher salaries for primary and secondary education actually exceed national government expenditure on education (Education Commission 2019, p. 130) and governments will not recruit teachers based on short-term unpredictable aid, so that major expense is covered almost invariably from domestic tax revenues. This leaves relatively little domestic funding available for other investments, leading governments to turn more to donors for supporting other aspects of the education budget. This gives donors a disproportionate say over the direction of education reform and means that donors have little interest in the recurrent costs that they cannot fund, such as teachers’ salaries. Donors, whose money comes from domestic taxpayers in their own country, also need to tell a simple story back home to make the case for aid – and this again leads them to focus on children and not adults.
This dynamic could and should change, but it depends on aid-receiving governments being more assertive about the direction of reforms, recognising that the bulk of their country’s education budget is already financed by their own resources and that the only sustainable way to make significant increases in education spending is through domestic resource mobilisation. If aid-receiving governments were more responsive to their own people for charting education reforms, adult education could rise up the agenda once again.
A useful approach to looking at domestic financing of education is found in the “4 S” Framework (GCE 2016, p. 17) – the 4 Ss represent the share, size, sensitivity and scrutiny of education budgets.
Most attention tends to be placed on the share of the budget governments spend on education, arguing for 20% as a benchmark of good practice (ibid., p. 17). This is indeed important, but continuing to ask for an ever greater share for education ultimately sets one against other public services – health, water, transport, energy, childcare and social protection, etc. Moreover, a 20% slice of a small pie is a small amount, and the bigger strategic challenge is to increase the size of the pie overall, which can actively benefit all public services, with education a particular beneficiary as it is often the largest slice. This can be done in three main ways: action on tax, on debt, and on austerity. It is action on these that could transform the overall financing available to governments, potentially even doubling overall spending on education. When spending levels rise that far, making new investments in adult education and lifelong learning becomes a real possibility –as long as the agenda is not being dominated by donor interests.
The first way to increase the overall size of the budget is through action to expand tax-to-GDP ratios (ActionAid 2020a), ideally in progressive ways so that new taxes are levied on those who are most able to pay (the wealthiest elite and biggest multinational companies). The average low-income country has a tax-to-GDP ratio of about 16% (Archer 2016. p. 9), but the IMF estimates that most countries could increase this by five percentage points in the medium term (3 to 5 years) (Gaspar et al. 2019, pp. 5, 16). Just doing this would be enough to double spending on education and health in most low-income countries. There are many different ways to achieve this through progressive taxation (see for example the 11 policy briefs compiled in ActionAid 2018b) on different progressive reforms including property, wealth and capital gains taxes, progressive personal income, corporate and value-added tax (VAT) reforms, trade and excise taxes, carbon and digital taxes).
Action can also be taken to address aggressive tax avoidance and illicit financing flows, which depend on strengthening tax administration. There is much that any national government can do on its own, but there is also a need to set global rules in a fair way, challenging the legitimacy of the club of rich nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who is the current setter of global rules. The case for a representative and empowered UN tax body is becoming ever more compelling (Bou Mansour 2021), and there is a clear appetite for action on corporate tax, with even the intergovernmental Group of Seven (G 7, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US) agreeing in June 2021 to set a global corporate minimum tax rate at 15% (TJN 2021). The design of this plan is flawed, as it will increase taxes in G 7 countries but do nothing for developing countries (unless action is taken on country-by-country reporting and agreeing a formula for apportioning global profits equitably), and the rate is set too low (25% was widely demanded). However, it is a sign that the tide of history is turning finally against tax havens and that bold tax reforms are on the global agenda again. This is why there is such a compelling case for us all to go through adult education processes on economic literacy, so we can add to the growing swell of informed voices demanding change.
A second pivotal issue affecting the size of the overall budget is debt. In 2020, over 50% of lower-income countries were spending more on debt servicing than they were on education or health (ActionAid 2020a, p. 41). Indeed, in 2020 countries spending over 12% of the national budgets on debt servicing cut public spending in the previous three years (ibid., p. 36). The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the new debt crisis, which has now been recognised globally. In April 2020, the intergovernmental Group of Twenty (G 20, comprising Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union) set up a new Debt Service Suspension Initiative (Fresnillo 2020), but this is far too short-term, fails to reach all the countries in need and fails to include all the creditors (e.g. private banks and China). Taking bolder action on debt suspension or even debt cancellation/bold debt renegotiation could significantly affect the resources available to governments to invest in public services as part of the COVID-19 recovery. Giving the most marginalised young adults a second chance to learn after their education was disrupted by the pandemic could be a particular priority for investment.
A third key element affecting the size of the total government budget concerns the macro-economic policies pursued by governments – whether they support so-called “expansionary” or counter-cyclical policies or whether they revert to austerity. For most of the past 40 years, governments in lower-income countries have followed the loan conditions or coercive policy advice of the IMF which has focused on limiting public spending, except perhaps on infrastructure. Public services have been particularly affected by the consistent advice (to 78% of countries over the past three years; see ActionAid 2020a, p. 66) to constrain spending on the public sector wage bill. Teachers, doctors and nurses are the largest groups on this wage bill, so any advice to cut or freeze the overall bill disproportionately affects health and education. Despite many generous COVID-19-related emergency loans since early 2020, the IMF has extracted promises from all governments that they will return to fiscal consolidation in the short term – which basically meant a return to austerity by the end of 2021 (ActionAid 2020b). This will now profoundly undermine spending on education, and there is a growing number of voices demanding that the IMF should move away from using such a blunt and ineffective instrument and indeed sever their attachment to a cult of austerity (Archer and Saalbrink 2021). Whilst such constraints are in place, governments struggle to pay existing teachers a decent wage and struggle to address teacher shortages, let alone recruit a new cadre of adult educators.
There are alternative economic paths to follow – such as those laid out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (ActionAid 2020b) – which place progress on achievement of the SDGs at the heart of economic and development policy, rather than as an afterthought. If rapid progress is made in governments having the courage and space to explore alternative economic models, then adult education could find itself revalued.
There is added urgency for governments to think differently about economic measures post-COVID-19, particularly in the light of the climate crisis. Moving away from simplistic measures of GDP growth and valuing progress towards achieving SDG targets could be transformative. Indeed, proper investments in lifelong learning could be particularly important in the context of countries having to radically adapt in response to the climate crisis. Countries cannot adapt if their people do not – there need to be new skills, new ways of behaving, new ways of seeing and understanding our fragile planet and environment. We need a new generation of active citizens of all ages to respond to this existential crisis and adult education will need to be sustainably financed to deliver on this. We need a vision of societies and economies that care for both people and the planet, and lifelong learning should be at the heart of developing that caring society and caring economy.
Sensitivity and scrutiny
Of course increasing the share of the budget for education and the size of the budget overall (through action on tax, debt and austerity) will not be transformative unless we also push for more sensitive budget allocations to ensure that funding is spent wisely – as well as investing in close scrutiny of that spending to ensure funds arrive in practice. These are both areas where adult education and learning can play a key role. Economic literacy and budget analysis skills (ActionAid 2011) are important for people to be able to track whether the right budget amounts arrive in their community and are properly spent.
Budget accountability or social audit groups have often emerged from adult education processes that use Freirean approaches. There are a huge range of different participatory methods, many of them documented and shared by practitioners on the Reflection-Action website,Footnote 2 that encourage people to hold local public services accountable. They scrutinise spending and slowly build in confidence to engage in budget formulation processes either locally, at district level or nationally. Demanding budget transparency and getting into the “room where it happens” can be key to ensuring that sensitive budget allocations are made.
Some governments of course are already committed to participatory budgeting processes, inspired for example by Porto Alegre in Brazil (LGA 2019), where the newly-formed Brazilian Workers’ Party attempted to create a participatory democracy in place of the outgoing dictatorship in the late 1990s. Many more governments locally or nationally can be compelled to be more inclusive by organised people and movements demanding a say. In most cases where this has happened, the need to invest more in education and in a second chance to learn for marginalised youth and adults is rising up the agenda. Indeed, the importance of adult education is much more recognised by people themselves than it is by donors sitting in remote offices.