What is the cost of educating refugee children? A well-funded, effective education system for all

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Syrian refugees learn to finger paint by their Lebanese teacher Better data is needed on the costs of educating refugee children through national education systems. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

The benefits of educating children are clear and well documented. Refugee children are particularly vulnerable; according to recent research, not only does access to education for refugee children reduce poverty and increase chances for children, it can also increase social cohesion between host communities and refugees.

Research published recently from the American Institutes for Research, New York University funded by the World Bank, UNHCR, and the UK, focuses on access to education by forcibly displaced children, with a particular focus on refugees in Chad, Sudan, Pakistan, Colombia and Jordan. This research tried to understand what it costs to educate refugee children through national education systems.

Difficulties in tracking refugee education funding

The research examines what integration of refugee and internally displaced children into national education systems means in practice, following earlier costing estimates. Obtaining and understanding the costs for this analysis was difficult. There was limited data on learning outcomes and even less data on exactly what was spent on education, with funding streams for refugees often mixing all services that refugees receive, making it difficult to disaggregate education spending from spending on health or social protection.

Funding education for refugees in the study countries came from multiple sources including NGOs, the United Nations, national governments, and national civil society. This made it hard to understand what was spent on education and to determine if this funding was efficient. Limited information on learning outcomes achieved by refugee children compounded these difficulties. The lack of data was particularly acute where there were funding streams that did not go through national systems. These funding streams were often incoherent and hard to track, meaning it is unlikely that this finance was in aggregate able to maximize outcomes for refugee children. Because how much was spent per child or what they learned is not known, measuring efficiency was also not possible.

Refugee children do better in countries that prioritize education overall

As outlined in UNHCR’s refugee education 2030 strategy and the World Bank’s refugee education strategy, where possible, refugees should learn through national systems alongside all other children. In our case studies on Pakistan, Colombia, Chad, Sudan, and Jordan, this was most effective where education was a high proportion of GDP.

For example, education budget data suggests that education financing in Colombia contributes to the government’s ability to integrate refugees into national education systems more effectively and for those children to receive higher quality education than the other case study countries. Colombia has both the highest education budget in our study (47.3 billion Colombian pesos, or approximately $12 billion, in 2020) and the highest education budget as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product (4.5 percent). This percentage is notably higher than the percentage allocated to the education budget by the other countries in our study, namely Chad (2.4 percent), Jordan (3 percent), Pakistan (2.5 percent), and Sudan (2.2 percent).

Countries with the lowest expenditures not surprisingly had less access for both refugee and host community children. With the data available, it was not possible to link expenditure to education programs, students, or learning outcomes. Better data on education financing and learning outcomes is urgently needed so that financing can be allocated to where it can best support learning and where it is most cost effective. Tracking non-government spending in our study was particularly challenging – we were unable to determine the sum of education spend for refugee students or what it achieved in terms of learning outcomes.

Host countries should consider how to improve refugee education expenditure reporting per student as well as learning outcomes, while also strengthening reporting for host populations, and international partners should consider technical assistance to support this where appropriate. This would allow for the more effective use of existing funds and to prioritize interventions that can demonstrably improve access to education and learning outcomes. There is a global learning crisis, and refugee and internally displaced students are a part of this global challenge. To achieve the goal of educating all refugee and forcibly displaced children as well as host communities, financing and learning outcomes need to be transparently tracked. 

This blog reflects the research findings and recommendations. The research was funded by the UK Government, however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government’s official policy. Data collection for the Sudan country study took place between May and July 2021.



Noah Yarrow

Senior Education Specialist

Ciara Silke

Research Adviser, UK Government

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