Rewriting the Education Millennium Development Goal

The international community has scored a major success in Africa by supporting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education. Gross primary-school enrollment rates rose from 79 percent in 1999 to 92 percent in 2004, and the average literacy rate (in the 29 countries for which data exist) rose from 54 percent to 62 percent. Some 87 percent of Africans today live in countries where the average primary enrollment rate is over 75 percent. Of the seven leading countries worldwide in boosting primary completion rates, six are in Africa.

This success has, however, brought new concerns. One is that educational quality has not kept pace with quantity, even at the primary level. This is especially worrisome in view of recent research that suggests that the quality of education has a stronger impact on economic growth than years of schooling, after countries have passed a threshold level of average literacy and per capita years of schooling.

More worrying is Africa’s large and growing skills gap with the rest of the world. While East Asia increased secondary enrollment by 21 percentage points and tertiary enrollment by 12 percentage points between 1990 and 2002, Africa raised its secondary enrollment rate by only seven percentage points and its tertiary rate by just one. The quality of secondary and tertiary education is not easy to gauge—because there are few surveys of educational quality—but it is unlikely to have improved. Staff to student ratios in West African universities increased from 1:16 in 1990 to 1:32 in 2007. Employer surveys report that Africa’s tertiary graduates are weak in problem solving, business understanding, computer use, and communication skills.

The lack of skills has serious implications for Africa’s ability to compete in the global economy and for its efforts to build the private sector. Recent research indicates that there is a strong link between export success and the percentage of the labor force that has completed post primary schooling. There is also limited evidence to suggest that enterprises managed by university graduates in Africa have a higher propensity to export. More broad-based evidence shows that among firms owned by indigenous entrepreneurs, those with university educated owners tend to show higher growth rates.

Increasing access at the post primary level will take money. Africa’s tight fiscal environments leave limited budget space for increasing secondary and tertiary expenditures. The costs of reaching the final few percent of potential primary students are rising rapidly, further crowding out of post-primary expenditures from the education budget. Real expenditure on tertiary education in Africa fell by about 28 percent between 1990 and 2002 and expenditure per pupil declined six fold.

As long as the international development community remains focused on achieving the MDG goal of universal primary completion, Africa’s skills gap with the rest of the world will continue to grow. It is difficult to mobilize donor support for improving quality at all levels, and access at the post primary level, when “success” is measured solely in terms of primary enrollment.

A new education MDG is needed, especially for Africa. The MDG Summit is the right place and now is the right time to begin a serious discussion of rewriting the education MDG. The appeal of the universal primary education goal is its simplicity: that is also its undoing. What is needed is a more nuanced measure of success in building human capital: one that reflects the importance of educational quality and the relevance of post-primary skills. Without a more balanced goal, Africa will remain starved for the resources needed to close the skills gap.