Three EIB experts talk about the education crisis and how to help children catch up after COVID-19  

Education is under severe pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and pushed 1.6 billion children either to online learning or out of education completely. School is slowly returning to normal, but the scars are apparent. Children’s learning has suffered, and this will have an impact on their educational success and further widen the gap between advantaged and disadvantage students. That could ultimately affect future prosperity.

The economic ramifications of disrupted learning are staggering — one study estimates that the generation of students affected by the pandemic could lose up to $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, because they may drop out of school prematurely or fail to compete effectively in the workforce. A crisis in education was stirring even before the pandemic. Children in some middle- or lower-income countries weren’t acquiring the skills they needed, despite spending years in the classroom.

The United Nations Transforming Education Summit on 16-19 September is an opportunity to examine the issues facing education, such as quality, inclusion and equity, and to elevate them to the global political agenda. Silvia Guallar Artal, Martin Humburg, Nihan Koseleci Blanchy — economists in the Education and Public Research Division at the European Investment Bank (EIB) — talk about the need to help children catch up and the ways donors and development banks can support governments’ efforts to rebuild education.

As we head into a new school year, what are the key issues facing education in Europe and in lower- and middle-income countries?

Silvia: Fortunately, the number of new COVID-19 cases and their mortality are decreasing. Hopefully, this trend will continue. The new school year seems to be beginning fully in person, with limited disruptions, which is very positive — especially for the most vulnerable and the youngest. But we have now entered a phase of transition. We know that the pandemic has caused substantial losses and inequalities in learning, so we need to continue and strengthen the efforts to remediate them and build the system back better. For instance, promoting innovative learning technologies, digital skills and innovative pedagogy will be key in transforming education. In order to achieve this goal, significant resources will be needed.

Nihan: A recent study published by UNESCO estimates that across the world, there are 244 million children and adolescents who are out of school, which is a huge number. We see this population growing particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and for secondary education. So, in addition to supporting students currently in school to catch up on lost learning, governments need to also work in getting the children who dropped out back to school.

Martin: Indeed, two of the biggest challenges are providing quality and equitable access to education and training. We also need to help students overcome learning losses and avoid dropping out. To address these issues, investment needs to increase very rapidly. In that sense, donors and development banks like the European Investment Bank have a critical role to play, as they can bridge countries’ financing needs.

How far have children fallen behind, and what lessons did the pandemic teach us?

Silvia: The World Bank recently examined 35 rigorous studies quantifying student learning losses in 20 countries as a result of the pandemic. Their paper reveals that the average learning loss estimated across these studies is roughly one-half of a school year, which is huge.

Nihan: Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly harmed education worldwide. However, it isn’t all bad news. It has also sparked innovation in the sector and promoted the exchange of experiences and good practices internationally. Throughout our operational work at the EIB we are seeing that, for example, promoters are making significant efforts to innovate in their school design, exploring new ways of repurposing existing spaces and incorporating more flexibility into school infrastructure. They are also exploring innovative ways of teaching. Another area that has become very relevant as a result of the pandemic is how to use digital tools to enhance teaching and learning. Although the evidence on what works is still limited, there are numerous initiatives to generate knowledge and share good practices such as, for example, the European Digital Education Hub. Seizing the opportunities digitalisation presents for education is certainly one of the EIB’s key priorities.

It sounds like education needs massive investment to catch up. But in many countries, education budgets are under pressure. How imperative is it that countries fight the urge to cut education budgets — which are significant — once more?

Nihan: The 2022 Education Finance Watch, published by the World Bank and UNESCO in April, shows that the pandemic reversed an upward trend of spending on public education in middle-income countries. Foreign aid for education has also lost ground. This is quite worrying because we need to take urgent action to address the fallout of the pandemic. But if we don’t have financing, we won’t be able to do that.

One way to counter this is to improve the cooperation between donors, lenders and countries on education financing. Right now, multiple donors might give money, but their efforts may not be coordinated. This is one reason why the European Investment Bank is working together with the European Commission through the Team Europe initiative. It’s a step toward strengthening partnerships and better coordinating financing.

How can the EIB, the European Union and member country institutions help alleviate the enormous pressure education is under?

Martin: We continue to provide affordable and attractive financing for projects inside and outside the European Union.

In Europe, for example, we are working on a project in Finland, where local authorities are building structures for schools offering vocational training in construction. The current vocational school campus is spread across the city and in buildings that are no longer state of the art. The new school will regroup into one building all the places where construction skills were taught. The new infrastructure will also be a learning tool in itself, as students will have the possibility to practise constructing an entire four-story building within the vocational school. That approach offers new pedagogical possibilities and a more real-life educational environment.

Nihan: Outside Europe, we are taking a coordinated and coherent approach to support the investment needs identified by the partner countries. For instance, we have a project in Montenegro to build schools for primary and secondary education. We know that providing education improves people’s academic and economic opportunities in life. We also hope that it will promote female participation in the workforce, because it will allow mothers to be able to go to work, knowing that their children are in a safe and adequate environment.

In Europe, we also have a war raging in Ukraine, which has resulted in 5.6 million Ukrainians fleeing the country — about 90% of which are women and children. Ukrainian children already lived through a pandemic. Now many of them are refugees in foreign countries. How damaging is the war to these younger generations, and what consequence could it have for Ukrainian society as a whole?

Martin: The Russian invasion has indeed had a huge impact on the schooling of Ukrainian children. It is estimated that 50% of people who fled Ukraine were children, and out of them, 40% were of school age. For Poland, for example, half a million Ukrainian children are expected to join Polish schools this fall. In Germany, 170 000 Ukrainian children have been registered in German schools. And here in Luxemburg, 1 700 Ukrainian children have just started their next school year, which is a substantial number given the small size of the country.

But, however great the effort of the hosting countries will be, being a refugee is a tremendously difficult situation. Millions of children will have the experience of having been a refugee, and of course, this will have an impact on Ukrainian society as a whole. Children of the same age, depending on where they fled to, will now have completely different schooling experiences in terms of language and curriculum, and in terms of the general environment and circumstances. When children start returning to Ukraine, you will see classrooms with children without a common past learning experience, which is always a challenging situation for teachers. And, we must not forget that there are also millions of internally displaced children within Ukraine who need adequate education infrastructure. I read a number of 6 million internally displaced persons, and if you assume 40% are school age, it’s a huge number.

The EIB, however, will support Ukraine in rebuilding its educational infrastructure. We helped Ukraine rebuild education infrastructure after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. Some of that infrastructure, unfortunately, has once again been destroyed or is in areas no longer under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. Nevertheless, the EIB knows how to rebuild and we will help Ukraine again.