Jan 28, 2017

Our educational system: more and better education?

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Two people love drawing. Both use most of their free time engaging in activities related to this passion. They dream about it; both starve for an extra chance to put on some work and create. As time passes by, one goes further and decides to make it his profession: studies techniques at school and university, devotes entirely to the development of the required skills and ends up as a well-known artist. On the other hand, the second puts it aside accommodating his ‘hobby’ between school, his part-time job and taking care of his siblings; he also pursues tertiary education, but chooses a more common career given the concern that being an artist would not provide him enough earnings.

When the cause of such contrast proceeds from people facing different contexts, the doubt about how effective is the society in the provision of opportunities arises.

This is not an isolated case. It is actually a common situation in less developed countries, where people are used to put aside their passions and opt for a more within-the-box occupation that provides them enough money to survive.

On the other hand, achieving tertiary education in environments of lower income is already a too-far-to-get objective: countries as Eritrea and Chad had a gross involvement in tertiary education of only 3% in 2014[1]. In Latin America, the average involvement rate was 45% in the same year. The fact that it is higher than the world’s average of 34% may seem surprising, but there are some methodological issues that may explain the differences[2]. Ecuador’s rate is far below this regional average, with levels of approximately 18% in urban areas and less than 7% in rural areas.

To this respect, while lower levels of formal education are not necessarily a determinant of failure in the labour market, on average, it has been proved that education is connected to better jobs and higher income, both being closely related to welfare.

Self-selection, opportunities and education

Self-selection is conceived as responsible for most of the observed outcome disparities. The nature and impact of such traits has been highly explored, especially in sceneries that go from education to the general use of social programs.

But, recalling the initial inquiries: If we had people with similar characteristics and preferences, why would they achieve uneven outcomes depending on the environment? Why the odds of being a successful pilot, dancer, singer or, even worse, attaining any formal profession are different among countries? Those are some of the questions that development economics has been trying to answer for years. Some argue the environment implies a certain level of opportunities, and that most opportunities are related to a person’s experiences and education. Therefore, we get back to where we started.

That’s why governments, private initiatives, ONGs and international organisations make huge efforts to provide education access. They have been successful in addressing some of the most serious barriers to access primary, secondary and tertiary education. However, the impact in terms of educational outcomes, and in particular student learning, has been much less impressive. A recent publication by the WB analysed the impact of their programs supporting education in developing countries. It found significant weaknesses in student learning, measured by the change in performance. One of the most relevant examples is Peru, with only 8% of sixth graders reaching mastery levels in language and 7% in maths. A parallel study cites that, even though they were supposed to, “75% of the first graders could not read at all by the end of the school year” (Crouch, et. al., 2005). And more generally, some findings coincide in that children at schools outside the government systems achieve, on average, higher learning outcomes with equal or less resources.

Aiming to uncover the reasons behind that, the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS) reveals how much government funding actually reaches the classroom by identifying the main points of resource leakage. In some cases, it goes even further to evaluate characteristics of service delivery.
Among the most enlightening detections, higher government spending on education in Zambia had no effect on outcomes because parents counteracted it by reducing their spending in an equivalent amount. In Peru, the survey offered some insight on the complexities behind the distribution of funds from central government down to classrooms due to excessive bureaucracy. It was also the country with the lowest impact since there were frequent changes of authorities; such instability of institutions undermined ownership of the results and diminished incentives to change policies.

Another WB study examines the relationship between individuals’ skills and labour market outcomes for the working-age population in Colombian urban areas[3]. The main source is the Skills toward Employment and Productivity (STEP, 2012) household survey[4], which focuses on two main categories of personal skills: cognitive, understood as aptitudes to perform mental tasks such as comprehension or reasoning, and socio-emotional, that refer to personality traits and behaviours. The results showed that although both matter for pursuing tertiary education and getting favourable labour market outcomes, their roles differ. Cognitive skills were proved to be greatly associated with higher earnings, job formality or high-qualified occupations, while the second played a stronger role in terms of labour market participation.

Ecuador: Outside Vs. inside the classrooms
The statistics related to education attainment and access to scholarships for education in Ecuador during the last decade is remarkable. To begin with, education became free of charge up to the tertiary level, providing potential accessibility for all. Besides, figures from the WBD suggest that the country increased the average years of education in 1.3 between 2000 and 2015, and that such attainment was evenly distributed among all income quintiles.

In terms of educational programs, an important initiative is the scholarships program for higher studies in internationally recognised institutions all over the world with a register of 11.501 scholarships granted between 2007 and 2015 according to the National Secretary of Education, Science, Innovation and Technology (SENESCYT). There have also been projects involving the participation of foreign institutions and experts that allow for an important exchange of culture, knowledge and experiences, especially valuable in the labour market.

Nevertheless, as numbers hardly provide the whole scenario, I was curious about how much we had improved in terms of thinking outside the box while choosing professions. I still wanted to scratch and look under the numbers of new enrolled in higher education and granted scholarships.

Therefore, I started asking students, family and friends that have being part of the process about their experiences. Some of the questions include: “If you could choose anywhere to live, where would you go?” “If you could do anything you want for a living, what would you choose?” If you were given a wish to change your life, what would you ask for?” Clearly, the process was all but formal or well-designed so numbers loose importance. However, capturing how far it seems to people the achievement of their passions offers some insight on the situation. People thinking that emigrating would be their ticket to happiness; others studying business because that career was the only option with space left or, even worse, forgetting about their life plan in order to afford a living… it tells us that there is still much to be done.

What is next?
The trends exhibited in the Education Policy And Data Centre (EPDC) policy brief show that achieving the last 10% of educational coverage could take even longer than achieving the first of 90%. Also, those included in the remaining part generally involve people in rural areas, in generally excluded states or provinces, female, and the poor. This pattern is a call for attention as it suggests that policies in developing countries present systematic failures, which we have not complied with yet.

New approaches are needed if we are about to give access to education and other relevant opportunities to the ‘remaining’ part of the population. New indicators must be included when evaluating the performance of social policy in terms of education. Growing figures of coverage are to be celebrated with no doubt, but quality of education and its actual impact on the population is still far to be achieved. Awareness of this limitation and our taking part with this responsibility would be a wise way to re-direct the journey.

The article has no conclusions as it consists of an invitation for readers to contribute, from their experience and perspective. Do you agree with the approach taken to improve education in Ecuador? What has been your experience about the taken measures? What else could be done in order to build more reliable instruments to assess it? What should the public policy intend to drive in order to provide education with real use and impact? Your contribution matters, leave us a comment!


[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR?year_high_desc=false
[2] First, this average is upwards biased since there is no information for 31 out of 44 countries considered in the region by the World Bank (WB), and the ones that present information are usually those with better results. Second, compared to the average for Europe and Central Asia (65%), while the highest values are similar, the averages differ by 20% as a result of the greater dispersion.
[3] Acosta et.al., 2015