17 Oct 2020 20:43 IST

The Covid cost of education

Anushree Fadnavi   -  REUTERS

Indian education system faces a reckoning as we quantify the impact of school closures in monetary terms

The impact of Covid-19 on education has been devastating. The effects of the raging pandemic became apparent to us only when the governments across the world enforced the strictest of lockdowns and school shutdowns back in March. The condition of the migrant workers and what happened to them during the lockdown was tragic, and something that both the Centre and the State missed in their ‘lockdown calculations.’

Nobody can forget the news headlines that were filled with heart-rending tales of migrant workers who decided to walk back home to their native villages, suffering, and some even dying, from exhaustion and hunger.

Survival crisis

The economic implications have been nothing short of a disaster, though there are some green shoots sprouting now, with businesses pinning their hopes on the upcoming festival season. The government’s own estimates say that the economy contracted by close to 24 per cent in the April-June quarter, the period where the lockdown rules were the strictest.

But the discourse both in government policy circles and the media has been dominated by GDP growth, loss of economic activity, impact on businesses, job losses, and wrangle between the Centre and States over GST compensation.

Beaten or broken

The shutdown of schools have so far received little attention. The World Bank in its recent report ‘Beaten or Broken: Informality and Covid-19 in South Asia’ provided a comprehensive analysis appended with a wealth of data on how the pandemic has affected the South Asian region.

One of the interesting focus areas of the report is the impact of school closures on the economy. Schools across the South Asia region have been shut ever since the lockdown was announced, end of March in the case of India. Schools, largely private schools in urban cities, resumed classes in the online mode. But government schools have been struggling to conduct classes even now and children living in rural areas where access to the internet  is dismal becuase of the connectivity and affordability issues have been severely hit.

The World Bank report, perhaps for the first time, has tried to quantify the impact of school closures in monetary terms, and the figures are mind boggling.

The report says that up to 391 million children have been kept out of schools across the South Asian region leading to a severe learning crisis. Further, it says that 5.5 million children may end up dropping out of schools due to the pandemic. The school shut-down will lead to a loss of 0.5 ‘learning adjusted years of schooling.’

The report says that being out of school not only puts a temporary halt on learning, students are also in danger of forgetting what they had already learned. The economic impact of this is obvious but still the figures put out are shocking. The South Asian region, as a result of school closures, is estimated to lose $622 billion in the ‘optimistic’ scenario and up to $880 billion in the ‘pessimistic’ scenario.

The reports say “the average child in South Asia $4,400 in lifetime earnings once having entered the labour market, equivalent to 5 per cent of lifetime earnings.” India, being the largest country in the South Asian region, is estimated to lose $440 billion in future earnings. The report further says, “the total loss in economic output from current closures is hence substantially higher than what currently countries spend on education.”

Time to reform

Right from the time of independence, India has traditionally focused less on the social sectors such as health and education. Though the 2019-19 Economic Survey says that India spends three per cent of its GDP on education, Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resources Development, a few months ago said the public spending on education had gone up to 4.6 per cent of GDP. He said the Modi government’s target was to hike this spending to 6 per cent of GDP in the near term.

Despite these assuring promises, there is very little doubt that India has been consistently under-spending on education over the years.

Moreover, spending is not the only problem besetting the education sector in the country. School drop-outs, learning deficiencies, teacher absenteeism, lack of infrastructure, and so on, are some of the problems that mar the country’s social development. There are also severe gender disparities in education with girls dropping out of schools earlier than boys in some parts of the country.

The Annual Statement of Education Report (ASER) is one of the most important documents that highlight the shortcomings, especially the areas for improvement every year.

The development of a vaccine and getting the pandemic under control is not likely to happen until mid-2021, according to some credible assessment surveys. In a post-Covid world, it is not just businesses and global value chains that need to alter their ways of working. There needs to be a radical review of how governments, especially in developing nations, spend on health and education and enhance social development.