S. Korea leads Asia in UNESCO survey

Pakistan ranks lowest

South Korea, with its view that education is crucial to economic expansion, leads 18 other Asian countries in a survey that shows how far the world is achieving Education for All (EFA) by 2015.

The East Asian country, which spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on education, ranked fourth among 127 countries in the 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Report launched in Brazil on Monday.

The survey, released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), ranks Pakistan in South Asia the lowest in the region. It further notes that most Asian countries are still far from achieving EFA goals.

Norway tops the survey while Burkina Faso in Western Africa takes the tail-end of 127 countries.

UNESCO says most Asian countries are bogged down by factors that hamper the quality of education such as lack of financial resources and facilities and adequately trained teachers.

The report`s EFA Development Index (EDI) measures the overall progress of the 127 countries towards EFA goals agreed upon during the World Education Forum in Senegal in 2000: universal primary education, adult literacy, education quality and gender parity.

Based on these goals, South Korea (No. 4), Maldives (No. 20) and former Soviet states Tajikistan (No. 31) and Kazakhstan (No. 39) in Central Asia are among countries in the region that rank high and are "relatively close to achieving" the goals in 11 years. Forty-one countries with high EDI are mostly industrialized and transition countries, although the report notes the inclusion of Argentina, Cuba and Chile in this group.

Nine Asian countries are considered to have medium EDI: Kyrgyzstan (No. 46), China (No. 54), Azerbaijan (No. 56), Macao (No. 58), Thailand (No. 60), Vietnam (No. 64), Indonesia (No. 65), the Philippines (No. 70) and Myanmar (No. 91).

These countries are "well on the way to achieving some of the goals, but are being held back by slow progress on others, notably quality," the report says. Other countries in the middle group include many Arab states and Latin American countries.

The third group of 35 countries, 22 of them in sub-Saharan Africa, also includes high population countries like India (No. 106), Bangladesh (No. 107) and Pakistan (No. 123). Other Asian countries in this group are Cambodia (No. 96), Lao PDR (No. 102) and Nepal (No. 110).

The report did not cover some Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, which was cited as one of the top donors.

"Overcrowded classes, poorly qualified teachers and ill-equipped schools with scant learning materials remain an all too familiar picture in many countries," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura.

Matsuura emphasized the importance of quality in education, saying that "what children learn and how they learn can make or break their school experience and their subsequent opportunities in life".

To date, there are 103.5 million out-of-school children worldwide and UNESCO notes that there has no substantial progress made to reduce this number in order to achieve the EFA goals by 2015.

Case studies The report presents case studies on Bangladesh and South Korea, among others, two countries with very different economies.

It says Bangladesh, which spends 2.2 percent of GDP on education, has made impressive progress in providing access and achieving gender parity in primary education despite its limited resources.

It also commends the government`s commitment to introducing reforms in education, although it faces a huge challenge in high teacher absenteeism and low number of learning hours.

On the other hand, the report states South Korea has achieved universal primary education and gender parity in both primary and secondary levels. The South Korean government, the report notes, views education as vital to economic expansion. The country has also given strong focus on improving the quality since the 1980s. South Korean teachers also enjoy extensive trainings as well as better incentives and the government funds a network of research institutes through an education tax.

South and West Asia South and West Asia, the report states, is characterized by massive educational deprivation. Children, mostly girls, are denied access to schools and many do not complete the primary level. It says that given the low participation level, a child in the region can expect only 0.7 years of pre-primary education.

It adds that adult literacy in the region is the lowest in the world: 58% of the population aged 15 and above could read and write in 2000. The rate was below 50% in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, but above 90% in Maldives and Sri Lanka.

It also notes that half of the South and West Asian countries are spending less than 3.3% of national income in 2001 - lower than the 4.2% average for developing countries.

East Asia East Asia, including vastly populated countries China and Indonesia, is on the whole moving away from the goal of universal primary education, but quality remains a challenge, the report states.

It says pre-primary education has improved over the last decade in Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Given the participation level, a child in the region can expect about one year of pre-primary education and at least 11 years of general education.

The report, however, notes that while participation in primary education is high, not all children who have access to school complete the cycle. It cites factors such as costs, unfriendly school environments or poor education quality. Among countries with available data, survival to grade 5 is less than 80% in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. In contrast, 98% of the children who enter the first grade of primary school in China reach grade 5.

Illiteracy was also widespread in Cambodia and Laos, where less than 70% of the population aged 15 and above could read and write.

Government spending UNESCO notes that education spending has generally increased over the past decade in many developing countries and access to education continues to improve.

Data from 1998 to 2001 show that some Asian countries including the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia have reduced their budgets for education. On the other hand, Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Laos and Cambodia have increased education spending, and Malaysia`s budget for the sector was the highest worldwide at 68%.

The report stresses that quality teachers are a "critical investment" to improving the level of education and that governments must make this a primary budgetary concern. It says governments face the challenge on how to improve recruitment, training and conditions of service in order to encourage more people from joining the teaching profession.

In 2000, salaries for teachers in Asia were the second lowest worldwide at a ratio of 2.9% of GDP by region, next only to Latin America with 2.3%. The report further notes that the salaries of teachers compared with other professions have declined steadily over the past two decades and are often too low to provide a reasonable standard of living.

It also raises concern on the quality of teachers especially in many low-income countries, wherein teachers do not even meet the minimum standards for the profession. It adds that the distribution of teachers in many countries is often unequal with many disadvantaged areas receiving fewer trained teachers.

It also explains that the cause of absenteeism for most teachers is due to lax professional standards, while some had to assume second jobs to support themselves.

The report concludes that governments should not only expand basic education, they also have to ensure that students stay in school long enough to acquire the knowledge they need in a rapidly changing world. "[But] assessment shows that this is not happening in many countries," it says.

(Korea Herald 2004-11-10)