The more education the better for each and all. So why are there not enough resources?
Just this past week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released its annual report, Education at a Glance. In a comparative fashion the study provides the most recent statistical data, country by country for all the 34 members of the organization, about the number of students, the type of education they follow and what they do after they graduate. Other measurements included in the report are education spending (public and private), teachers’ workload, teachers’ tasks and teachers’ salaries, as well as the gender gap, the social mobility and the accessibility of education to different groups in the society. A special section is dedicated to the analysis of economic and social benefits of education, measuring the extent to which having an education translates into economic gains for individuals, as well as the social impact of having a population with a large percentage of educated people.
This report is very timely, since only at the beginning of September 2012 the European Commission (EC) and its special expert group published a report on literacy in Europe, showing some alarming numbers. Even if the EC has a special campaign on improving literacy (“Europe Loves Reading”), the numbers do not show this love being spread in the general public. In concordance with earlier published numbers, 20% of the adults in Europe lack the necessary literacy skills to propel them on the job market, and 20% of the European 15-year olds did not possess sufficient reading skills in 2009, a number that stagnated until today.
Both the OECD and the High-level expert group of the European Commission concur. Poor literacy and from there insufficient education has a negative social impact on pretty much all accounts as it is connected to unemployment, social exclusion, criminality, political absenteeism. Low literacy and low education levels are also connected to widening the gender gap as well as the gap between migrants and the local population.
The numbers are clear. In the OECD population, those with a university degree tended to earn more than those without it, up to 55% more. On the contrary, those at the lowest end of the education echelon, who lacked a high school degree, were likely to earn up to 23% less than their co-generationals who graduated from secondary education. Getting a university degree makes one more likely not only to earn more but to secure a job more easily. Among those with higher education diplomas, only 17% are unemployed, in comparison with 44% of those without high school education. Finally, having a university degree improves the overall quality of life: university graduates tend to live longer, to express a higher satisfaction with life in general, and to participate more actively in politics and civil society activities.
This information is not new. The most recent reports confirm earlier trends. So the only wonder I am left to have is: how come we do not do more for education, for literacy? For governments it would be an investment in the future of their country. What can be wrong with a well-educated population that is prosperous, healthy, and takes part in politics and civic life? What can be wrong with a population that is able to read and write in a time where literacy (and especially computer literacy) is the key to having a job? This would decrease the costs of unemployment and the associated social unrest and would raise the amount of money circulating in the economy, thus making the economy grow and generating a virtuous circle (provided that some of the surplus is reinvested in education). Even for the private education providers, making education more accessible and of better quality would increase the total amount of money going back into teaching and research, as it is also demonstrated that educated people tend to invest in the education of their children or support research through donations and funds.
How come we do not do more for education? Yes, in order to answer this question one almost feels prone to believe in conspiracy theories. Or in politicians working from the assumption that voters do not care about education and can be fooled with cheap tricks like talking to empty chairs.