The Global Education Challenge

Museum of Western Australia, Perth

Speech, E&OE, check against delivery

26 October 2011

Education affects all aspects of human development.

It helps deliver us decent living standards as well as material and intellectual wealth.

And education is the key to unlocking a country’s potential for economic growth.

Research shows each year of schooling translates into a 10 per cent rise in a person’s income.

The figure is even higher for women and girls.

But the case for improving education is not just an economic one.

Improving educational levels shapes all aspects of social development.

Without the transformational power of education, our lives would be much poorer.

Education has played a crucial role in overcoming poverty, lifting economic growth, empowering women, improving governance and health.

For girls, extra years of education mean better employment opportunities and earnings and makes a significant difference in when they marry, how many children they have and whether their own children are educated.

The education revolution in Australia

Australia is in the midst of an ‘education revolution’.

We are investing heavily in building a world class education system:

  • investing in universal access to early childhood education for all four year olds;
  • striving for 90 per cent year 12 or equivalent attainment rate by 2015;
  • delivering a standard national curriculum for English, maths, science and history -agreed in October 2010;
  • supporting a record 531,000 Commonwealth supported student places in Australian universities, including halving fees for maths and science students; and
  • a record $5 billion investment in tertiary education and research institutions.

This investment, this revolution, will provide a firm base from which Australians as individuals can grow and develop, to make a meaningful contribution to the big challenges of the day.

The Australian experience is a good one.

Not perfect but good, and improving.

My concern is that, globally, progress towards universal basic education is not moving fast enough.

1966 was the first time that the international community made a commitment to universal primary school education as a part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Article 13 of the Covenant challenged us to make “primary education compulsory and available free to all” because “education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations.”

Then at the Millennium Summit in 2000, the international community agreed that by 2015, children everywhere should be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

Commonwealth Ministers of Education reaffirmed their belief in the right of everyone to education in Edinburgh in 2003, in Malta in 2005, and most recently in Malaysia in 2009.

Universal primary education has been on the agenda for decades.

And yes, many advances have been made.

But we are now well into the 21st Century and an estimated 67 million school-aged children in the world still do not go to primary school.

On current trends, the out of school population could increase to 72 million by 2015.

Education quality is an equally pressing concern.

Around 200 million children in primary school are learning so little that they are struggling to read basic words.

Without basic literacy, the return on years of schooling to a child is either zero or very small.

Almost half of all countries are unlikely to achieve their Millennium Development Goal targets relating to education.

In Commonwealth countries an estimated 27 million children do not go to school, about 40 per cent of the global total.

Fifty six per cent of these children are girls.

At least nine Commonwealth countries face substantial challenges in achieving the education MDGs.

Too often the children who get left out belong to particularly vulnerable populations — ethnic groups, immigrant communities, refugees, impoverished families, children with disabilities, street children, families living in rural and remote areas.

We need to do better.

It is unacceptable that, globally, funding for education has stagnated.

The global financial crisis has exacerbated that trend.

In 2008, aid expenditure to basic education stopped increasing for the first time since 2000.

UNESCO estimates that because of the global financial crisis, education systems across sub Saharan Africa lost out on more than about $4.6 billion.

I believe that cutting back on education expenditure is rarely good public policy, or even good policy from a purely fiscal perspective.

Education is sometimes wrongly considered by some to be what economists call a ’superior good’, a luxury item that you invest more in as your income increases.

If you follow this line of thought, when under fiscal pressure developing countries should prioritise economic development first at the expense of education.

This is a false paradigm — investment in education is economic development.

The building of a nation’s human capital is fundamental to its ability to achieve development.

The World Bank has found that investment in education yields a higher social return than physical infrastructure and this relationship is even stronger for developing countries.

An educated labour force allows the population to take full advantage of the growth and value add opportunities in the economy, whether it be in natural resources, tourism, manufacturing or services.

To take an example that has been talked about a great deal this week, the booming natural resource sector, something that Australia shares in common with many Commonwealth countries.

One of the reasons Australia has benefited from its natural resources is that our labour force is skilled enough to take full advantage of the opportunities the sector offers.

Mining is an industry traditionally considered to be low skilled and blue collar. However, around two thirds of employees in the Australian mining industry have some form of post school qualification.

A country relies on the education level of its people.

Education can be costly but the cost of not educating our people is far greater.

171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills.

This would result in a 12 per cent cut in global poverty.

Worldwide, 700,000 HIV cases could be prevented each year if all children received a primary education.

Remarkably, over the past 40 years, half of the global reduction in deaths of children under five years old (or 8.2 million fewer deaths) can be directly attributed to the better education of women.

In South Asia, educating women resulted in a 40 per cent reduction in child mortality.

That’s because better educated women are more likely to practice good hygiene, to space their children, to seek medical help for a sick child and to vaccinate their children against deadly diseases.

This is why Australia regards education as one of the best investments we can make, at home and overseas.

That is why we have made education the flagship of our aid program.

Last year about one-third of our development assistance went to Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean and South Asia.

In the Pacific, it’s helping bolster resilience and addressing the particular challenges to sustainable development of small and remote developing countries — such as market access, adapting to climate change, and promoting health.

In South and West Asia, it’s on health, economic growth, climate change and sustainable development and in the Caribbean, it’s on improving disaster risk reduction, regional economic development and creating people-to-people links to share knowledge and expertise and build capacity.

But none of these measures will succeed as well as they might unless we invest in the education of people.

That’s why education now accounts for one-fifth of our aid budget and has increased by 60 per cent in dollar terms since 2007‑08.

By 2015, Australia expects to increase our contribution to the education sector to 25 per cent of the aid program and be one of the largest bilateral donors to education globally.

This aid has been achieving results.

In Papua New Guinea for example, our funds have helped build 361 school buildings. We distributed just over half a million textbooks and delivered in-service training to about 4 000 teachers.

Our support for the education programs of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or “BRAC” in 2010 benefited more than 31,000 primary schools, providing education to about one million children — 65 per cent of whom were girls.

Australia supports the four Australia Pacific Technical College campuses across the Pacific that have produced more than 3,000 graduates since 2007.

Australia is also investing heavily in development awards to help instil in leaders the skills to address the challenges facing their communities and countries.

Over the next couple of years, about 4 800 awards will be provided to Commonwealth countries in the Pacific, the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia.

These scholarships will provide some of the best and brightest from Commonwealth developing countries with access to world class tertiary education in Australia.

To complement this approach, Australia will make a $1 million contribution over three years to enable people from developing countries to study in other Commonwealth countries through the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Endowment Fund.

Launched in 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of Commonwealth scholarships, the Endowment Fund is providing scholarships hosted by Commonwealth countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Vanuatu.

This will give students from Commonwealth countries a unique study opportunity and strengthen people-to-people links.

It will enhance the educational links between these countries and is a good investment for our scholarship program.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Gillard announced a Mining for Development initiative, which includes a major educational component — the Australia Mining Awards — which will provide up to $30 million for short course and degree scholarships in mining.

This investment in education will provide access to Australia’s world class expertise in mining to help build the capacity of developing countries to realise the potential of their mineral resources.

This is on top of the 200 technical scholarships relevant to mining Australia has provided over the last 10 years.

We also wish to re-join the Commonwealth of Learning.

This small intergovernmental organisation provides opportunities through information and communication technologies and open and distance learning.

When we reviewed the performance of Commonwealth organisations earlier this year, we were pleased with the improvements that had been made in the Commonwealth of Learning over the past five years, including in the Pacific.

A New Architecture: A Global Fund for Education

Australia is proud of our bilateral efforts, and our partnerships, but so much more needs to be done.

The estimate the global shortfall in education funding is $16 billion dollars, a gap that is not going to be closed by bilateral donors alone.

Government aid alone will never be the only answer to a challenge of this magnitude.

Globally aid flows amount to around $120 billion a year.

But that is dwarfed by the funds available in the private sector.

For example, the global value of financial assets amounts to over $100 trillion.

There is also a gap in global education architecture. We lack an institution that can tap into these broader resources under a single, unified banner.

We need an institution that can bring together global efforts and focus resources on this challenge.

At present, this task is shared between the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO, with negligible private sector buy-in.

We need to consolidate these efforts, under a single brand.

Vitally, we need a body that can harness non-traditional sources of funding.

We need to learn from both the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and GAVI (the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation).

Their innovative financing mechanisms and the focus they give to their goals can teach us a lot about how to get a better result for global education.

We need to actively seek opportunities to harness the private capital and entrepreneurial initiative of the business community, the not-for-profits, faith groups and retired teachers.

I believe that the time has come for a public/private institution with an explicit mandate for school education - a global fund for education.

By harnessing the resources of the private sector and the wider community, we could make a good start towards building a more effective and well-capitalised global fund for education.

The Global Partnership for Education, formerly the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, is, I believe, one of the best vehicles we can build to become the institution drives efforts to get that last 67 million children into school.

It’s the only global partnership for education and it’s getting results.

Crucially, partnership at the country level is led by Ministries of Education, and leverages national resources.

Since the Partnership was established in 2002, it has helped increase global primary school enrolment by more than 19 million.

The fund has constructed 30 000 classrooms, trained ten times as many teachers and distributed more than 200 million textbooks to primary schools.

11 Commonwealth countries in Africa are supported by the Partnership.

However its current scale and mandate is not enough. It must grow and reform to meet the challenge.

Australia is also co-sponsoring the Partnership’s replenishment pledging conference in Copenhagen early next month along with six other countries — two of whom are Commonwealth members — Guyana and Rwanda.

I urge you to join Australia in committing to education by generously supporting the Global Partnership for Education and its work.

We need to act now, to do more on a global level. Otherwise the 67 million children not in school, their children and grandchildren will struggle to escape poverty.

Only by aligning our efforts and working together can we ensure that children everywhere have the opportunity to go to school and learn.


When I talk to children in different countries I know how much it means to them to receive an education.

They tell me they want to be doctors, teachers and everything our own kids see themselves as one day.

We have to give them that chance.

But we are not going to fill the $16 billion global shortfall in education funding with good intentions alone.

We as the global community need the institutions, policies and effective governance to realise our long overdue goal of universal basic education.


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