This blog by Elizabeth Fordham, Education Specialist, UNESCO, lays out the key findings of a new report looking at the changing balance of education power in the world as a result of the growing influence of the five major emerging economies – the BRICS.
BRICS nations – Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa – are changing the balance of education power in the world today. In the first comparative study of education trends and challenges across the five countries, a new Report by UNESCO, BRICS: Building Education for the Future, looks at how these major emerging economies are getting more children and adults educated, improving the quality of education available to them, and developing the skills base needed to reach high-income status. The report draws five broad conclusions from the analysis of BRICS.
Changing the face of education
Education progress in BRICS, which are home to over 40% of the world’s population, has had a major impact on the global distribution of human talent. India’s success in expanding access to education has created the world’s largest primary school system and brought 42.7 million more pupils into secondary education in just over a decade. In 2004, China outstripped the USA as the country with the world’s largest tertiary population and all BRICS are witnessing remarkable rates of growth in higher education. Today, BRICS account for over one in three of university students worldwide.
The five countries are determined to transform this quantitative advantage into a qualitative one by raising student achievement. Parts of China already top international rankings at secondary level and all BRICS have ambitious learning goals. BRICS’ universities figure prominently in emerging economy ratings, and the countries have bold plans to compete with the top global education performers. China’s National Education Plan expresses this ambition, promising that by 2020 the country will have world class universities and become ‘a power to be reckoned with in the global higher education landscape’.
Improving quality skills and tackling inequalities
To achieve this ambition for excellence BRICS will need to focus sharply on the quality and equity of education. South African students are lagging behind those of many neighbouring countries in numeracy and literary skills, with implications for its future as a regional economic powerhouse. India’s success in expanding access to education risks being undermined by inadequate infrastructure, poor teaching and high rates of child malnutrition. Children who leave school early remain another major challenge for BRICS. Education is compulsory in Brazil until the age of 17, but statistics show that most children don’t progress beyond lower secondary school, denying them the skills needed to access decent jobs and boost labour productivity. As they aspire to world-class status in education, all BRICS are confronted with the need to address deepening disparities in the quality of schools, especially between rural and urban areas and those serving children from poor households. Too much talent is being wasted through overlapping inequities that deny many millions of young people in BRICS the opportunity to participate in their country’s economic growth.
Innovation in action
Yet, the new report also demonstrates how the very scale of this challenge has inspired remarkable policy innovation among the five countries. It shows how BRICS are breaking new education ground, from innovative initiatives in pro-poor financing to bold strategies to engage the business sector in skills development and assess learning outcomes. Most striking are the ways in which BRICS have sought to expand the financing base for education. Brazil’s system for funding skills enhancement through payroll taxes has built the largest training network in Latin America. The Brazilian government has also set a new standard for resource-rich countries by earmarking 75% of royalties from oil extraction for education. The roll-out of India’s new law requiring companies to spend 2% of their profits on corporate social responsibilities activities will be of interest to all governments looking at ways to fund higher levels of education and skills.
Rising influence on the global stage
In education, as in the economy, the influence of BRICS extends well beyond their own borders. While BRICS may still only account for a small proportion of international spending on education, their investment is increasing while aid from conventional donors stagnates. China is by far the largest provider of development-related finance, spending more than all the other BRICS combined. This suggests an important potential future role for BRICS in reducing the estimated US$ 26 billion funding gap for primary education in low-income countries. However, increased spending is just part of the picture. BRICS combine their funding with technical expertise and domestic experience in a way that is transforming the very paradigm of development assistance.
Benefiting from BRICS’ expertise
An important final conclusion is that the international community at large stands to gain from stronger BRICS collaboration in education. The report provides 12 recommendations of how the five countries can work together to share expertise and address their common challenges. BRICS ministers of education are scheduled to meet for the second time early in 2015 to craft a plan for cooperation. If they can forge a bold agreement at this meeting, with the provision of quality education for all at the heart, then the BRICS will indeed show that they are becoming an international force to be reckoned with.