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Education in Africa: Where does the money go?

Public spending on education in Africa has been increasing annually according to a new report, but how is the money distributed?

Over the last decade public spending on education in Africa has increased by more than 6% each year, according to a report released on Wednesday by the UN educational, scientific and cultural organisation (Unesco).

"The increase in investments has been accompanied by some spectacular results," says the report. "Between 2000 and 2008, the number of children in primary schooling increased by 48% – from 87 million to 129 million. Enrolment in pre-primary, secondary and tertiary education has also grown by more than 60% during the same period."

Published by the UN agency's Montreal-based Institute for Statistics, the report details government spending on education in each of the 45 sub-Saharan African countries. It presents the most up-to-date data on how much is spent on different levels of education, and digs out historical data to track trends over the last 10 years. The report also presents figures on the qualifications and salaries of teachers, the running costs of schools, and the provision of textbooks.

Some key findings are:

• In Burundi and Mozambique, education spending rose by an average of 12% annually over the last decade

• Out of the 26 countries with comprehensive data, only one – the Central African Republic – reduced education spending since 2000

• Overall, sub-Saharan Africa spends 5% of its gross domestic product on education, which is second only to North America and Europe at 5.3% but in one-third of the region's countries, half of all children still do not complete primary education

• A total of 32 million children remain out of school

• In some countries, such as Guinea, Mali, Rwanda and Zambia, development aid accounts for about 50% of government education budgets. But in the region as a whole, aid accounts for a much smaller fraction (5.6%)

Wedged between the recent economic crises and looming population growth, most African governments will need to make strategic decisions on how to budget for education, says Unesco. The population of sub-Saharan Africa's five to 14-year-olds is expected to grow by more than 34% over the next 20 years, and the region will need to respond to the demands of 77 million new students.

And as neither domestic resources nor donor funding are likely to increase rapidly enough over the coming years, governments will need to make difficult decisions. If you had limited resources, which would you fund first: Primary or secondary schools? Textbooks or teacher salaries? And what do you care more about, expanding access or improving the quality of education?

Currently, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend at least 10 times more on a university student than on a primary school pupil, says the report. And on average, eight out of every $10 spent on university education in Africa is subsidised by country governments. These figures raise "a serious question of equity".

"Should a country that cannot provide every child with a primary education cover almost 80% of the costs for tertiary students, who tend to come from wealthier backgrounds?" asks Unesco. "By shifting more resources to lower levels of education, governments might stimulate more household spending for higher education, without threatening the growth of the tertiary sector."

Unesco highlights the recent experience of Burundi, which brought the number of out-of-school children down from 723,000 in 1999 to just 10,000 in 2009. Over the same period, Burundi increased its investment in education from 3.2% of GDP to 8.3%. But what made the real difference, says the report, was the decision to dedicate a much larger chunk of the budget to primary education, effectively moving public money away from secondary schools and universities.

Below, we've pulled out some of the figures from the report, looking at public investments across the different levels of education. The spreadsheet also contains additional data on total population and population under the age of 15. Let us know what you can do with the data.

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