Education spells hope for world wellbeing

Options Magazine, Winter 2011: 

Education has a positive effect on every aspect of human health, wealth, and wellbeing. Educational attainment, the evidence now clearly shows, is linked to economic growth as well as fertility and life expectancy. Even the transition of societies into modern democracies is rooted in widening educational participation among the young. But strong further investment in education in the developing world is needed if the potential benefits of education are to be realized.

Chinese children

In a time of economic crises, increasing food insecurity, continued rapid population growth in poor countries, and the growing prospect of adverse consequences from climate change, the future looks rather bleak to many people. Nevertheless there is still cause for optimism, argues IIASA’s Professor Wolfgang Lutz. Recent research on education trends around the world points to significant future improvements in human capital and, as a consequence, better health and material wellbeing worldwide.

The link between education and economic growth is now well established (see below). The wider significance of education is perhaps less well understood. Almost universally, for example, more highly educated people have better health and live longer. Studies further show that the education of women makes a striking difference to family size, their own health, and that of their children. More educated women typically want fewer children, find better access to contraception, and are better able to overcome obstacles to family planning, such as the objection of their partner or misinformation.

Universal secondary female education could, as the story of Mauritius shows, lower population growth and break the vicious circle of poverty and high population growth. During the 1950s Mauritius experienced population growth rates of more than 3 percent a year. Following a strong but strictly voluntary family planning program launched by the government during the 1960s, the total fertility rate fell from more than 6 to less than 3, one of the world’s most impressive fertility declines.

The reason for this success, researchers believe, is that by 1962 more than 80 percent of all young women could read and write: a factor that increased access to family planning. Subsequently Mauritius experienced the benefit of the so-called demographic bonus through a decline in youth dependency combined with still very low old age dependency, resulting in a period of economic growth, investments in infrastructure, and further education. In Ethiopia women without education have on average 6 children, whereas those with a least junior secondary education have only 2. “It’s fair to say that progress in female education together with access to family planning services are the key determinants of future population growth in less developed countries,” Professor Lutz points out. “For the world as a whole, more education could result in about 1 billion fewer people by 2050.”

Exploring the impact of maternal education on child mortality in developing countries, a recent study concludes that in the vast majority of countries, maternal education matters more for infant survival than household wealth. The study further highlights some overwhelming evidence for a link between maternal education and child health. Such findings suggest a reorientation of global health policies to more directly address female education as a primary policy option for improving child health.

Yet education, IIASA researchers suggest, holds even wider potential to tackle some of the world’s ills. “A radical focus on education also qualifies as a key strategy in our quest for sustainable development,” argues Professor Lutz. “Better educated people will be better empowered to adapt to the consequences of already unavoidable climate change. Studies on past natural disasters show that—after controlling for income—education reduces vulnerability and greatly enhances the capacity for recovery. In this sense, investments in education are likely to be the best long-term investments to enhance adaptive capacity.”

In terms of the emergence and sustainability of democratic political institutions, education has been shown to play a part. Recent research supports the view that as people become more educated they also become more politically aware and more inclined to participate in the political process. Unprecedented increases in education levels, particularly among females—as have taken place recently in Iran—could, researchers suggest, quicken a country’s move toward a more democratic political system.

“Interestingly, female education appears to matter more than male when it comes to the effects of education on governance and on the transition to free democracies,” Professor Lutz points out. “Obviously, women play a key role when it comes to exerting the checks and balances on those in power that are necessary for a free democracy to emerge.”

Given the wealth of current evidence suggesting an impact from education that extends from fertility right through to freedom, the time may be ripe for a radical reorientation of global development priorities. “Of course the benefits of education come with a time lag: for example, when more girls enter elementary school, it will still take some 20 years or more until they can make the difference as more empowered young women,” Professor Lutz states.

In this sense, education efforts are a longer-term investment with significant near-term costs, he continues. But in times of confusion regarding the right global development policies (and the fact that the forthcoming Rio+20 Conference lacks a clear paradigm about how humanity needs to go forward), the proposal of a radical focus on enhancing human capital growth through universal education and basic health could prove a promising strategy.

Proving the case

Age and education pyramids for China in 1970, 2000, and 2030. Colors indicate highest level of educational attainment. Children aged 0 to 14 are marked in gray.

Using new demographic techniques, IIASA researchers are now able to show that education has a clear positive effect on economic growth. Why had previous evidence for this link been ambiguous? “This was due to using education data without the necessary age detail,” says IIASA’s Professor Wolfgang Lutz. “Previous data considered the entire adult population aged 25 years and older as one age group. Therefore rapid improvements in the education of the young adult population—an important driver of economic growth—did not produce enough statistical signals in a very broad age group, which also includes elderly, poorly educated people.”

To address this shortcoming, IIASA has developed demographic multi-state modeling—an approach that provides age- and sex-specific reconstruction and projection of human capital in a unified framework that also takes account of educational mortality and fertility differentials. Studies of this new data by five-year age groups for 120 countries since 1970 show conclusively that educational attainment is indeed the key driver of economic growth.

How do multi-state methods work? As the figure above shows, applying multi-state methods for projecting backwards (reconstruction) or forwards (into the future) requires that at least one data point be available for the size and structure of the population by age, sex, and level of educational attainment. Using the example of China, the analysis presented in the figure begins with the age and education pyramid for 2000. From that point it is relatively straightforward to reconstruct the educational structure for 1970 as well as forecast forwards to 2030.

China is not only the world’s most populous country but has also experienced one of the most rapid fertility declines together with a phenomenal education expansion. Interestingly, as the figure illustrates, much of the future improvement in the educational attainment of China’s adult population is already embedded in today’s education structure.

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Last edited: 19 July 2013


Wolfgang Lutz

Program Director World Population

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