ADB is working across Asia and the Pacific to promote quality, accessible education for all to support sustainable development.
ADB has been working for more than 50 years in Asia and the Pacific to expand and improve education at all levels and has allocated about $15 billion in loans and grants to the sector. The region, home to almost 4.5 billion people, has significantly increased access to education and achieved relevant targets under the Millennium Development Goals. But the quality of education, particularly the attainment of learning outcomes, remains a challenge. There is a growing consensus among ADB, its developing member countries (DMCs), and development partners, that countries must reach and maintain a critical level of basic skills for societies to have the social and economic means to grow and prosper. The bank works to strengthen the education systems of its DMCs, to help them compete in the global economy.
ADB recognizes that quality universal basic education is the result of expanded post-primary education, teacher education, and skills training. These factors all rest on a strong primary school foundation. ADB also helps each DMC develop a good mix of financing across the various school subsectors. ADB has a long track record of supporting high quality education for all. In 2019, ADB loans for education totalled around $1.1 billion. ADB has funded education projects amounting to $7.4 billion in pre-primary, primary, and secondary education; and $1.6 billion in general education development since 1970.
When it comes to primary education, the region is a global success story. Since 2018, nine out of ten children in Asia and Pacific are enrolled in primary school. Numbers are only part of the story: significant improvements have also been made in the quality of education offered too. For a continent where only one in three children attended school in the 1970s, progress has been nothing short of remarkable. ADB has played an important role in Asia’s achievements in education, but daunting challenges remain if countries aspire to become successful knowledge economies.
ADB is committed to reducing pronounced unequal access to education in the region. Children who are unable to go to school, even in countries where enrolment levels are high, tend to be from the poorest and most disadvantaged in society. There’s a clear gender bias in education; meaning girls and women are often at a disadvantage in most DMCs. Others marginalised from mainstream education in many countries include young people in rural areas, those from ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, refugees, and those living with disabilities. ADB has supported many projects that promote inclusivity, such as education scholarships and stipends linked with conditional cash transfer programs. These programs have often had positive results, particularly when targeted at girls or poor households.
ADB also promotes educational equity by supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. STEM education is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 4: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. All aspects of STEM education are vital to achieving the SDGs because they commonly use real world problems in learning contexts through inquiry-based and experiential methods to promote 21st century skills. STEM education also promotes employability skills, entrepreneurship, and innovation by integrating engineering and technology with science and mathematics.
Poor quality teaching is often at the root of inadequate basic education. This often leads to stunted achievement and a high drop-out in many schools. ADB has long recognised that improving the quality of classroom teaching is vital to improving the quality of education. Poor teaching stems from lack of teacher training, an unsuitable teacher training curriculum, outdated teaching methods, and weak management capacity. The bank has funded many projects that have improved the quality and coverage of teacher training. These projects have often focused on building capacity and increasing recruitment of female teachers and providing fellowships for women and candidates from other disadvantaged groups.
Although primary school attendance rates remain high across the region, this masks serious deficiencies in the quality of education, in particular basic numeracy and literacy. High dropout rates at primary and senior levels are also a source of concern. Structural weaknesses in basic education mean pupil progress at higher levels of education is often impaired. While primary school enrolment rates are healthy, they are far lower at secondary level. Often it’s a resource issue; there are simply not enough schools in the right places to meet growing needs. An extensive school building program is essential, particularly in urban areas of rapid population growth. In tandem with more secondary schools, the curriculum, financing, teacher quality, and administration need to improve to deliver quality education.
Developing countries in Asia and the Pacific are increasingly maturing into middle-income economies. They recognize that they need an educated population with marketable skills if they are to move up the value chain and compete in a globalized world. Research has clearly shown the link between quality higher education and overall economic competitiveness. ADB is working to support its members meet these needs through universities and vocational training centers. This often involves promoting pedagogic partnerships with industry and the private sector. Promoting equal access to higher education across society is also an ADB priority, along with learning that supports entrepreneurship and innovation.
The main challenge in developing Asia and the Pacific is to upgrade technical vocational education and training (TVET) so that it more effectively meets the needs of current, as well as future needs of labor markets. The ongoing rapid economic and digital transformation across the region means marketable skills tend to have a short shelf life. This means that incorporating 21st century and digital skills into TVET programs to enhance the employability of graduates is an emerging priority. The key to success remains cooperation with the private sector in TVET planning and delivery centred around work-based training, towards establishing demand-responsive TVET systems. Aligning TVET programs with government economic priorities, in areas such as high value manufacturing and services industries, should be part of national growth strategies. These strategies should increasingly include national initiatives to promote lifelong learning for re- and up-skilling.
As educational provision expands and diversifies, better governance is necessary. This includes attracting and retaining an education workforce with the right talent and experience, boosting accountability, and improving financing. Curriculums, for the 21st century, need reform to ensure a diverse range of abilities are developed, including cognitive, non-cognitive and occupational. In a development context, broad and deep knowledge acquisition is enhanced by collaboration across sectors. For example, this could be nurtured by bringing together medical, water and engineering students to see how each discipline can be enriched by reference to others. Educational decentralization and the promotion of lifelong learning are other important reforms that ADB supports.
Quality education requires significant investment. While a large share of public budgets for primary and secondary schooling goes toward teacher salaries, significantly more resources need to be found for textbooks, teacher training, infrastructure, and management. This would have a marked impact on education quality. Governments also need to explore new and innovative approaches to financing quality higher education, such as private sector partnerships. In addition, the higher education sector must take more responsibility for raising the huge amount of finance needed to improve standards, but without compromising its autonomy. Vocational training, similarly, has to work towards more sustainable funding. This should involve a greater role for the private sector and would help TVET become more closely aligned with the labour and knowledge needs of manufacturing and service industries.
School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic led to losses equivalent to over half a year’s worth of learning. This forgone learning will hamper students’ ability to earn income in the future. Poor students and girls were hit harder. Inequality in learning and earning losses will grow unless investments are made to promote equality of access.
Strategy 2030 sets seven operational priorities, each having its own operational plan. The operational plans contribute to ADB’s vision to achieve prosperity, inclusion, resilience, and sustainability, and are closely aligned with Strategy 2030 principles and approaches.
This Education Sector Directional Guide provides the strategic direction of the Asian Development Bank for the education sector.
Principal Education Specialist
Senior Education Specialist (Education Technology)
Senior Education Officer
Social Sector Specialist (K-12 Education)
Education Specialist (Higher Education)
Education Specialist (Technical and Vocational Education and Training)
Associate Operations Analyst