At a recent conference that brought together African Finance and Education ministers, the keynote speaker, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, finance minister (and former education minister) of Singapore gave a beautiful speech about Singapore's experience that contained some potentially difficult and controversial messages for Africa.
1. There is a virtuous circle of education and growth, but you need to create it. This means that finance ministers should be concerned about education, and education ministers about economic growth. [At the conference, one participant, when asked a question about education in his country, said "I'm the finance minister, not the education minister."]
2. Singapore emphasized technical and vocational education by giving it prestige that was almost equal to academic education. This involved, among other things, a public relations campaign. As participants at the conference said, in Africa, we also need to deliver on the quality of vocational and technical education.
3. Singapore's insistence on education being a meritocracy (students advance purely on merit) has led to equity. For instance, the top 5 percent of the students come from 95 percent of the schools. But to make this work, the education system needs to be insulated from politics. As Tharman said, the role of political leaders is to keep politics out of education.
4. In Singapore, universities charge full fees, and give scholarships to low-income students. The government encourages private donations to universities, matching them one-for-one. How many African universities can overcome the political resistance to charging fees?.
5. Singapore has done well with teacher training because it has been linked with pay-for-performance for teachers. Without the latter (which if often resisted by teachers' unions), it is difficult to get results from the former.
6. Interestingly, Tharman didn't mention foreign aid once (even though the conference participants discussed it many times). He was even equivocal on the importance of public spending, pointing out that Singapore spends less (as a share of the budget) on education than the OECD, and yet has better test scores. There was more emphasis on efficiency gains. To achieve these efficiency gains, it's important that finance and education ministers hold each other accountable. I found the statements by finance and education ministers from the same country saying how well they got along a bit troubling: there has to be some tension in the relationship for the mutual accountability to work.
Finally, Kevin Watkins gave a presentation on the EFA Global Monitoring Report which struck me as providing the best way to make the case for protecting and even increasing aid to education: that aid has been productive, generating unprecedented increases in enrolment in Africa. If donors want their aid to be productive, this is a sector they should support.