Coming from an upper-middle class family, I always had the privilege to attend the best schools and university in my country with the best teachers and learning modules. Long story short, in 2019, I graduated from one of the best universities in the country with honour. With my background as a French studies student, I decided to kick start my career as a volunteer where I taught basic French to children from rural areas.
One time during a French basic communication class for children aged 10-14, the learning topic discussed future jobs and dreams, so I asked the children “What is your dream job?”, and the class suddenly went silent while I was listing every familiar profession for children. As I did not receive any answer from the students, I decided to speak in my native language and asked them the same question. One student who was slightly older than the others started to speak and said “My only dream is to graduate from high-school and start looking for a job right after”. I was confused hearing his answer and after the class, I kept wondering to myself, “Is it a generational problem, did children start to feel less motivated and more scared to dream?”.
I kept that question in mind until I landed a job as a researcher in a think-tank organisation, where I focused on researching social welfare and education issues in Indonesia. To understand the context of the education system better, I did a lot of desk research and expert interviews. At the same time, these experiences helped me answer the question I had.
Unsurprisingly, the socio-economic situation plays a great factor for children to continue their studies. In Indonesia, there are around 78.14 million people working in the informal sectors. Out of 78.14 million people, approximately 29.5 million people have been surveyed based on their monthly earnings. Interestingly, the majority of the people already earns more than Rp2 million per month – more than US$145 – which means, if one person from this group does not have any family member to take care of, they would only spend around Rp1.2 million per month – equivalent to US$85 – for basic needs like food, the rent for a small studio for one person, electricity, and water. Yet, they could still save the unspent money for emergency funds.
It becomes apparent that the story would be different for someone who already has a family and children to take care of. With the same amount of monthly earnings, lower-income households need to spend more on education fees, learning facilities, and indirect cost to education (child’s transport and pocket money). According to a survey, the average total household expenditure for a high school level education for one person is Rp552.312 – equivalent to US$40 – per month. This often has to be multiplied by 2 until 4, because it is quite common in Indonesia to have family members consisting of more than two children, regardless of the financial status and background of the family.
For that reason, it is understandable for children coming from poor backgrounds to drop out from school, simply because their family could not pay for their education. Sometimes to keep themselves in school, children need to work after school to help their parents financially and to fund their education. With this in mind, it started to make more sense why the children I taught French some years ago said their only goal in life is to finish high school and look for a job with that degree. Because for them, it is already a privilege to attend education until high school.
What is happening in my country Indonesia is just a small fragment of reality. Around the world, there are 258 million students staying out of school. While there are various reasons as to why these children are dropping out of school, for example, gender discrimination and access to schooling, the real cause of this problem is related to poverty and other economic factors, resulting in high school-age youth choosing employment over the continuation of their education.
During the COVID-19 pandemic schools have been closed for 168 million children, following the social restriction imposed by governments around the world. Another by-product of this pandemic is massive furlough and workers laid-off, and by that, many informal workers are suffering financially, unable to fund their daily basics and family, especially for their children’s education. These events can later widen the gap in education, create learning poverty for children and decrease their chance to get job opportunities in the future. Amidst all the uncertainties in this era, it is difficult for the children to think about their future, especially when they are coming from poor backgrounds. Then, what we can do to keep these children away from the damaging impact of poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic, and to keep them in school?
As a saying once said, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Collaboratively taking actions and engaging various sectors including governments, academic institutions, the private sector (businesses), media, and young people (public) is the most effective way to recover from the situation. Without this collaborative partnership between cross-sectors and each of them staying in their own silo doing ‘Business as Usual (BAU)’, we might be seeing an even greater gap in education and increased learning poverty for students, even after recovering from the pandemic. Then, what can these sectors do? and what roles could they play in such partnership?
Governments certainly have a vital role in this matter. They can play various roles, starting from setting the policies and targets, organising indicators and budget, until monitoring and evaluating policies and projects. Nevertheless, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world only have one main agenda which resonates with the high-level global leaders meeting, namely how to recover from the pandemic. For now, the question of what can governments do simultaneously to reducing the impact of COVID-19 and the economic gap for children remains.
First, governments need to make sure that they are protecting the education budget of their countries. In the pre-pandemic era, the spending on global education grew steadily, with low- and middle-income countries recording the fastest growth, (Figure 1). And on average, governments around the world become the greatest funder in the education sector, making all countries’ education development highly dependent on the government’s allocated fund for education (Figure 2).
(Figure 1 and 2 depict education spending in the past decades from various sectors. On average, governments around the world have spent significantly on education, compared to development assistance and household (EFW, 2020))
With that said, reallocating or cutting the education budget for COVID-19 mitigation would cause severe losses to the development of education. As the development in the education system is already too dependent on the public sector’s funding. Even when combining all budgets in the education sector during the pre-pandemic era, still many children remain left out of schools.
Then the next question is what should the education budget be spend on during this pandemic? The answer should be providing facilities (smartphones, mobile data, and access to online learning platforms) for children and teachers. With schools being closed following the social restriction imposed by governments, providing relatively cheap to free online learning services and facilities to accommodate teaching and learning processes would certainly help minimize the current disruption in education. At the same time, providing learning facilities to those most in need could be seen as a very good foundation for the government. Particularly, if in the post-pandemic era they decide to emphasize the hybridity of education methods, including online learning.
Yet, I do realise that not all countries have the capacity to provide free facilities to students and teachers, which allows the shift of the learning processes to online methods. Since governments are already struggling with the COVID-19 situation, reprogramming the budget on health sectors. Thus, this is the moment for other collaborating partners to jump in and help the government.
Academic institutions and Think-Tank Organisations
With the government having their hands tied handling the virus at the moment, these stakeholders could definitely ease the burden of the government by advocating for policy recommendations and assessing whether a policy is going as intended.
Academic institutions and Think-Tank Organisation regularly publish evidence-based reports for policy reference without which government institutions and the private sector would go blind in their decision-making process, perhaps speculating and doing numerous trials and errors on policy implementation and product innovation which could have been avoided. Furthermore, the data provided by these research and academic institutions could be useful for the private sector to innovate their businesses. Thanks to this data and the acceleration of digital transformation, there are many start-ups growing in developed and developing countries which can provide services based on the community’s needs. Especially in education sectors, many edtech companies now can give access to learning materials which are accessible to many students regardless of where they are living and background.
Private sectors (Businesses), Media, and Young People (Public)
In the midst of the pandemic, most countries across Asian and European regions have collaborated with prominent edtech and telecommunication companies of the country, to provide relatively cheap to free online learning access during the pandemic. In my opinion this is a step forward in education, despite obvious setbacks during the pandemic. Hopefully this initiative does not only occur momentarily during the pandemic, but will continuously develop to reach more students who live in rural areas and do not have the funds to participate in online learning.
Yet, despite digital transformation happening almost everywhere in the world, we also need to consider the issue of digital divide. Using mainstream media like television, radio, text messages and newspapers would still be effective in disseminating the learning materials given the context of the pandemic situation. Broadcasting lessons via national television and radio would still be effective to reach students who are not connected to the internet.
With all partnership stakeholders having played their roles to make sure that the education sector is not lagging due to the pandemic, the last question is: What is our role, as young people, in this partnership? and what can we do?
The answer is: Educate ourselves to know the context of the pandemic and its impact on education better. The pandemic gives us a silver-lining that allows us to access more opportunities, without which we would never have the chance to participate. It is time for us to Involve in volunteer activities, social media campaigns, participate in webinars, seminars, and trainings conducted by the government, NGOs, or even youth organisations within our community. From this point, we would know the real time problem in the community and start to understand how to help people.
What we have done during ASEFYLS4 with the 15 projects implemented provides an example and demonstrates the importance of our role in helping the community to recover from the pandemic. Even though our projects may focus on different aspects and are not limited to education, but also breaking the stigma, mental and wellbeing, campaign on climate action etc, these actions help the community to move forward during the hard time. Also, it can be a platform for people whose voice has not been heard before.
A Light in the End of the Tunnel: There is Still Hope for Accessible Education for All
While the pandemic creates disturbance in all sectors, the tragedy in some ways opened our eyes about the gap of economic, opportunities, and accessibilities in our community. Hopefully, the collaboration between stakeholders and our effort to minimise the impact of pandemic, especially in the education sector, setting the foundation to create a more inclusive and accessible education for all, and help the children continue their studies. After all, there would still be an opportunity for children to dream about their future.