Education funding and COVID-19: what does the future hold?

By Laura Abadia, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


With prolonged school closures affecting over 90% of all learners worldwide at the peak of the first wave, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to explore new and more effective approaches to education delivery and content. From hybrid models that combine in-person with remote learning, to widening academic curricula to include social and emotional competencies, the opportunities for change are manifold. However, recovering from prolonged school closures and seizing these opportunities will require making significant headway against the deep structural challenges perpetuating inequalities in education.

To better understand how COVID-19 is changing education donor behaviour and priorities, the OECD Centre on Philanthropy analysed years of OECD data on official development assistance (ODA) and private philanthropy, and interviewed dozens of donors. Here is what we learned:

Education funding could dry up in the coming years. Shrinking fiscal space, declining remittances and household income and a possible decrease in aid due to the crisis, could hit education budgets hard. Moreover, sixty years of data show that although ODA has been a stable source of funding for developing countries across all sectors, ODA flows for education have been volatile and unpredictable, with countries like Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger that have seen aid increase or decrease by as much as 50% from one year to the next. Meanwhile, the unprecedented global recession may also hit foundations’ revenue streams, including those active in developing countries, given that their most common sources of income are endowments or individual donations.

Education as a gender equaliser has been losing ground and girls stand to lose disproportionately from school closures. With higher burdens of domestic and unpaid care and domestic work, and lower access to technology, girls may have fewer opportunities to engage in remote learning. They also face an increased risk of pregnancy and early marriage, reducing their chances to return to school as they reopen. Moreover, recent data on development aid and private philanthropy show education has been losing ground as a critical entry point to support gender equality. Between 2010 and 2018, total ODA for gender equality almost doubled, increasing from USD 23 billion to USD 44 billion. However, the share of gender-targeted funds channelled through education fell from 16% to 10.5% during the same period. Similarly, the education sector attracted only 5% of philanthropic giving for gender equality over 2013-15, a very low share compared to gender-targeted funds channelled through health and reproductive health sectors (which attracted 73% of funding over the same period).

COVID-19 has shifted the debate from whether to adopt technology-enabled instruction to how technology can best enhance teaching and learning in school and at home. In the short term, consulted donors are focusing on bridging the access gap to remote learning by supporting a wide range of delivery channels, from broadcast and print, to SMS and computer-enabled learning. In the longer term, donors see hybrid instruction as a priority. For a better understanding of the needs and best use of technology in education in a given context, donors should assess  learner needs, the available infrastructure and technologies and user appetite for edtech. Donors can also support the development of open and free educational resources, complementary to face-to-face learning. Finally, donors can invest strategically to produce new research where critical evidence is missing. We need a better understanding of the effectiveness of certain technologies like pre-registered video and audio tutorials, live one-on-one tutoring and gamification. Further research should also assess whether and how edtech can help students develop social and emotional skills and  improve teacher in-service training, mentoring and collaboration.

Teachers are the drivers of innovative, student-centred learning, not just technicians who deliver a curriculum.Donors see teachers and school networks, both public and private, as tactical partners to prototype, test and spread bottom-up innovations, identifying and sharing experiences of what works and what doesn’t based on field realities. They also provide an opportunity to test innovations across very different contexts and accelerate the spread of successful practices. Philanthropic initiatives tapping into these networks include: Schools 2030, Haiti’s Model School Network, Jacobs Foundation’s “Learning Schools” portfolio, and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation’s work with no-fee school networks in South Africa.

It’s time to prioritise social and emotional learning. Education donors, particularly private philanthropy, can raise the profile of social and emotional learning.Following school closures, school systems may further narrow their focus on remediating measurable academic and technical skills.Education donors and private philanthropy can play an important role in trialling the measurement, teaching and certification of social and emotional learning and in demonstrating the feasibility of these approaches in low-income settings. There are a number of examples, ranging from developing life skills assessments for girls, to testing innovations to help students improve their mental and physical health, life satisfaction and close social relationships. The OECD Centre on Philanthropy is conducting a survey to explore how private philanthropy is contributing to social and emotional learning.  

Finally, rigorous evidence should become the guiding compass for the investment of limited resources. As schools progressively reopen, donors must continue investing in educational research and work with development partners to deliver “smart buys” in education, including back-to-school campaigns, raising awareness on the benefits of education among local communities. Incentives that help students return to school will also be critical in a context where many households are under economic stress. For students in their foundational learning years, delivering tailored instruction to meet them where they are can ensure they catch up on their learning. Importantly, donors must be wary of “gold-plated innovations” and instead privilege approaches that can reach a high number of students, with costs that can be realistically sustained in the longer term. Initiatives such as OECD’ Programme for International Student Assessment for Development (PISA-D),  the recently launched Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel,  or “evidence brokers” – organisations like OECD CERI, Edtech Hub, and J-PAL –  can provide valuable, evidence-based guidance in this endeavour.