WITH the youngest demographic profile in the world, African governments are doing well to invest a significant amount of resources in the education sector.
Universal primary education became a priority in the past decade and a half, driven by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and progress on this front has been laudable. There has also been significant progress in expanding access to secondary and tertiary education.
But the education spending disparity through the levels raises some questions. In East Africa, for example, governments spend an average of $57 per primary school pupil, and $127 per secondary school student.
At tertiary level education spending is more than ten times higher, at a mean of $1,493 per student, but even this masks huge disparities among countries – Tanzania is the clear outlier, spending an average $4,391 per university/college student.
The inequity in resource allocation is clearer when you consider that it is just a tiny minority of people who make it to higher levels of education in the first place. It East Africa, it is only about 5-7% of the six and seven-year-olds eligible for the first grade of primary school in any year that will eventually graduate from university.
Such dismal transition rates means that it is actually those in the lower grades of education – the bulk of the children in the school system – who are ‘penalised’ by low government spending.
And considering that it is generally those from wealthier backgrounds who will go to college and university, the impact on inequality becomes clearer.
Or as a recent report by the Society for International Development puts it this way: should countries that are unable to provide every child with a quality primary education cover the bulk of costs for students at the tertiary level (which is also the most expensive), considering that they will, for the larger part, come from more privileged backgrounds?
Even worse, data from the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) concluded that on average, 56% of students graduating from East African universities lacked the basic and technical skills needed in the job market.
When broken down per student, it emerges that a large chunk of public investment is spent on the tertiary sector, it is worth interrogating what value for money citizens are getting in this respect.