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Most developing countries in Asia and the Pacific have increased primary education enrollment rates in the last three decades, but daunting challenges remain. ADB is assisting its developing member countries achieve the goal of quality education for all.

ADB's Work in the Education Sector

ADB is well-positioned to provide leadership in the education sector in Asia. With over $15 billion in loans and grants to the education sector for more than 50 years, ADB has a long track record in assisting its developing member countries (DMCs) achieve the goal of quality education for all.

ADB provides finance and advisory assistance to its DMCs for education services to tackle key challenges such as

  • increasing enrollment (access) particularly of disadvantaged groups
  • improving learning outcomes for all (quality and relevance) since many students are not learning despite attending school
  • reducing education inequality (equity and inclusiveness) to ensure no one is left behind
  • enhancing employability of graduates from different levels of education and training
  • improving governance, financing, and efficiency

ADB has supported the decentralization of basic education in Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia and Uzbekistan; the modernization of secondary education in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam including secondary education oriented to labor market needs in the Philippines; human capital and skills development in Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, and Kyrgyz Republic; higher education projects in the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Mongolia; distance education in South Pacific countries; and open university systems in Bangladesh.

Strategy 2030 reflects ADB's commitment to increase and align its support in the education sector to meet the changing needs and priorities of its DMCs. The strategy positions education to strongly support learning anytime anywhere with the use of appropriate technologies, addressing remaining poverty, reducing inequalities, and accelerating progress in gender equality. 

Drawing lessons from COVID-19 for the new normal, ADB continues to identify key educational challenges in Asia and the Pacific in the coming years, and proposes ways for its DMCs to meet those challenges. ADB stresses the importance of using new and innovative models of education service delivery and financing to enhance learning for all and the employability of graduates.

To achieve these goals, ADB is scaling up its programming of loans, grants, and technical assistance, and strengthening its economic and sector work. Besides assisting comprehensive educational programs in developing countries that bring basic and secondary levels up to international standards, ADB is supporting postsecondary education including vocational and higher education, as well as social protection measures that help girls and disadvantaged students to attend school.

How does ADB influence development in the region through its educational investments?

  • ADB, DMCs, and other development stakeholders agree that nations need to reach and maintain a critical level of basic skills to provide the social and economic means for societies to grow and prosper.
  • If ADB can help each DMC in Asia to strengthen its own formal and informal education and training system, then each country and the region collectively will stand a better chance of competing in the global economy.
  • ADB offers scholarships through the ADB-Japan Fund for Scholarship Program as well as internship and research fellowship opportunities to eligible candidates from DMCs.
  • ADB recognizes that universal basic education along with similar efforts for secondary education go hand-in-hand with expansion of post-secondary education, teacher education, and skills training that together rest on the strong foundation of school education. ADB helps each DMC develop a good mix of financing across the various subsectors.
  • ADB and the international community stress the importance of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for education ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

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Education Issues in Asia and the Pacific

Asia is a global success story when it comes to educating children. Overall, 9 out of 10 children in the region, since 2018, are enrolled in primary school. Significant progress in attaining quality education was globally reported during the first quarter of 2020. For a continent that contained two-thirds of world’s out-of-school children in the 1970s, the progress has been nothing short of remarkable.

However, while much progress has been made over the past 10 years, indicators particularly on learning still point to serious education and human-resource shortfalls at all levels throughout the region - a reality that could dampen Asia’s lofty economic aspirations. These issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted education and training systems in unprecedented ways. ADB and its key stakeholders share the view that urgent action is needed to address the deep-seated problems related to poor learning outcomes and inequities in education aggravated by the current pandemic. Yet the current crisis can be an opportunity to establish transformational strategies to reimagine a new normal for DMCs’ education systems in close collaboration with key stakeholders.

This section highlights major education challenges and trends in developing Asia and the Pacific. Across all levels of education and in the context of COVID-19 and other possible pandemics that will stifle face-to-face learning, ADB helps its DMCs maintain education delivery in the “new normal” scenario. This includes exploring education technology solutions to ensure continuity of learning and scaling of quality and equity, as noted in ADB blogs: Lessons learned from the massive shift to online learning due to COVID-19 and Blending education and technology to help schools through the pandemic. The publication Class of 2020: Implications of COVID-19 on Education Systems, Ensuring Progress of Students and Educators, provides guidance on how ADB DMCs and development partners can re-orient support for education in dealing with the current pandemic.

Recognizing the evolving state of education in the region is vital for ADB, governments, and other development partners to properly align their education operations to developing member country needs.

Basic and Secondary Education

Education is not only a concern for governments, but also for students and parents, communities, and employers. It is critical for reducing poverty.

Primary education enrollment averages around 90% in the region. However, this high rate masks serious deficiencies in student retention, quality of education, and foundational literacy and numeracy acquired. Dropout rates are a source of concern. Persistent weaknesses in basic education have slowed progression to higher levels of education.

With significant improvements in primary education enrollment, almost all government are aiming to achieve universal secondary enrollment. However, enrollment rates are far lower at the secondary level. School construction is needed to expand coverage particularly in areas of rapid population growth and without access to such facilities. Drawing lessons from past investments, to make physical expansion sustainable, it is more critical to take strategic steps to support comprehensive policy reforms to improve quality, equity, financing, and governance, as well as efforts to improve teacher training, curricula, and education service delivery.


Technical and Vocational Education

Developing Asia and the Pacific provides a rich array of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) experiences, but too often these have recorded only modest results. On the whole, training and skills development systems in DMCs are not fully equipped to produce graduates with competencies suited to the emerging labor market needs. Still, there is much to be learned from past and current TVET programs particularly in the areas of reducing skill mismatches informed by robust labor market analysis, improving relevance of training by forging viable partnerships with employers and private sector for on the job training, and integrating 21st century skills such as soft and digital skills to enhance the employability of graduates.

Among the required changes are:

  • strengthening TVET's links to industry and workplace training
  • basing TVET on standards that are set or validated by industry
  • making learner placement, internships, and on-the-job training programs regular features of TVET delivery
  • coordinating TVET development with government departments responsible for trade and industry, workplace relations, and science and technology, to align skills being taught with government policy directions


Higher Education

Most countries in Asia and the Pacific are middle-income countries. They recognize that they need a growing cadre of people with advanced skills to move up the value chain and for their economies to compete in a globalized world.

Higher education contributes significantly to the technological and innovation capacity and overall competitiveness of developing member countries (DMCs). As such, the region's fast-growing economies are exerting pressure on higher education. There is an increasing trend for DMCs to establish world class universities and "centers of excellence." Higher education is now experiencing both the "push" of large numbers of secondary education graduates, and the "pull" of labor markets demanding more workers with higher level skills in different growth sectors. This requires ensuring high quality of teaching and learning, promoting relevant research and development in partnership with industry and private sector, and addressing development challenges such as the need to develop high quality teachers, promote advanced digital skills, and support the ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation.

As these developments appear more frequently on the higher education landscape across the region, it will be important to support measures that ensure more inclusive access to higher education so that no sector of society is neglected in the development of human capital.


Education Reform

In an expanding and diversifying sector, developing member countries (DMCs) need to implement reforms to strengthen governance. In particular, reforms should focus on attracting and developing talents of education workforce, improving governance and accountability, and improving financing and system efficiency.

DMCs will need to pay more attention to improving synergies between education subsectors and their interface with other sectors, such as:

  • instituting sector-wide policies such as lifecycle and whole of government approaches
  • harmonizing curricula to ensure different types of skills (cognitive, noncognitive and occupational) are developed
  • ensuring equal access to training programs
  • providing flexible pathways for graduates of lower levels to continue their studies at higher levels
  • promoting cross-sectoral collaboration to bring synergy (e.g. health workers, water and sanitation in educational institutions, workforce development in priority sectors)
  • promoting lifelong learning through reskilling and upskilling programs

In many countries, subnational levels of government play an important role in education. DMCs should increasingly pursue decentralized approaches to education management, resource allocation, and service delivery in close partnerships with local governments and industry. Decentralized approaches are more likely than centralized approaches to yield greater inclusiveness and improved education outcomes.


Sustainable Education Financing

Sustained investments in education are important for the productivity and resilience of economies. Funding for education is provided not only by the state, but also by households and the private sector. The contribution of different actors is dependent on the country's sector policies.

A large share of public sector budgets for basic and secondary education goes toward teacher salaries, with insufficient public sector funds remaining for inputs such as textbooks, teacher training, and developing school management that would improve the quality of education.

Higher education faces resource constraints and competing priorities. It is critical that governments explore new approaches to financing quality higher education, such as private sector partnerships, giving public higher education institutions greater autonomy and more responsibility for raising funds, and developing their capacity to manage their financial affairs.

In the case of technical and vocational education and training (TVET), public financing can cover only part of the costs that can leverage other sources of funds. A sustainable solution involves shifting the role of skills training away from government to the private sector through better incentives while strengthening the public sector's role in regulating TVET.


Promoting Equity

Unequal access to education in the region remains pronounced, beginning at the basic education level, and compounded at the secondary level and above. Children who are unable to go to school—even in countries with high enrollments—tend to be from disadvantaged population groups.

Girls and women are at a disadvantage in education in most DMCs, as are children and youth who

  • are from poor families or families at risk of sliding back into poverty as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • live in rural and remote areas,
  • belong to ethnic and linguistic minorities,
  • have disabilities, and/or
  • are refugees or migrants.

Inclusive education calls for strategies quite different from simply expanding the mainstream education system. For example, education scholarships and stipends linked with conditional cash transfer programs have produced positive impacts, particularly when targeted at girls or poor households. Such programs foster inclusiveness and equity across the education system, and are widely acknowledged as key factors in advancing economic growth in DMCs.


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