Dumbing Down: The IMF and Education

Contrary to the optimistic view circulating in some media circles that the IMF 'bailout' 'will save us,' this piece looks at the kinds of things that happen when institutions like the IMF and its (ugly) sister institution, the World Bank, come in to 'assist' 'cash-strapped' countries.

One way of getting more of a handle on some of the potentially negative longer term effects of IMF policy prescriptions or the conditions attached to lending is to look at the effects these institutions have had on education systems in Majority or so-called 'Third World' countries over the last quarter of a century or so. Shining a spotlight on education is important, given that the Irish education system has long been a source of pride in Ireland, as evidenced by the oft-cited (though largely unsubstantiated) belief that Ireland's well-educated workforce was one of the main reasons why multinational corporations chose to grace Irish shores during the Celtic Tiger era.

What follows are just a few reasons to be cautious about embracing the IMF-EU bailout package. These observations are based on empirical findings which are well-documented in the comparative international education and development literatures about the damage that the strict loan conditions imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and World Bank) have caused elsewhere.

As the Memorandum of Understanding between the Irish Government and the IMF-EU reveals, Ireland will be subject to very strict loan conditions, and we should therefore be gravely concerned about the damage that could be done to one of the most important public and social goods that a country has.

1. Education invariably suffers when the IMF insists on macroeconomic austerity. For example, a report by ActionAid and the Education for All Campaign found that the tight budget policies promoted by the IMF had constrained or reduced educational investment in many poor countries. For example, in 2004, an IMF policy condition banned Zambia from hiring teachers, leaving thousands of teachers unemployed at the same time as pupil-teacher ratios rose as high as 100-1.

2. The IMF and World Bank like to make even really really poor people pay for the most basic levels of education by requiring or strongly encouraging governments to charge so-called 'user fees' or to implement 'cost recovery programmes' if they are to be eligible to receive loans. The imposition of user fees in countries like Ghana and Malawi has been identified as a clear violation of national sovereignty and the detrimental impacts of these policies have been well-documented. The increase in user fees for education in Rwanda in the early 1990s was one of the factors that fuelled poverty and despair and increased participation in the 1994 genocide.

Forcing poorer students to pay for their education has had a host of devastating consequences on enrolment rates across countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has resulted in higher levels of gender inequality in educational attainment and increased rates of HIV/AIDs, by giving young people little choice but to become involved in intergenerational sexual relationships with 'sugar daddies' in return for money just so that they can go to school. That these policies have been so detrimental and utterly ineffective as a means of enhancing educational quality or efficiently is obvious by the fact that the very institutions that imposed or encouraged them have now officially retreated from them, and now endorse the notion of free, universal primary or basic education for all (in principle, if not always in practice).

3. The Bretton Woods institutions often base their policy decisions on dodgy statistical analyses and are sometimes forced to acknowledge that they were dead wrong about their policies in the first place. For example, after two decades of complaints from Majority World countries about the myopic nature of World Bank policy on higher education (which resulted in significant disinvestment in the higher education sector), the World Bank suddenly completely reversed its position on the relative efficiency of investment in tertiary education.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn admitted that the Bank had miscalculated the rates of return to higher education, and had based almost three decades of policy that privileged investment in primary education over all other levels of the system on invalid data. Yet the Irish government's four-year economic plan (as approved by the IMF) envisages a 5% reduction in university grants and a €400 increase in registration fees.

4. These guys really don't like teachers or teacher unions — education policy documents produced by the IMF and its allies demonstrate the extent to which these institutions perceive teachers as a problem and treat them with suspicion. Instead of trusting and supporting teachers by treating them as professionals, teachers are construed as lazy, troublesome people who are paid way too much who need to be monitored and controlled, and subject to evaluation criteria that fail to capture the complexities of the teaching and learning process.

The IMF declared Honduras 'off track' for debt relief when the government increased teachers' wages. In some cases this negative attitude to teachers/public servants involves a preference for the privatisation of education services on the grounds that the private sector is more 'efficient'; but in Guatemala the IMF-inspired privatisation of 20% of pre-primary and primary education led to reduced educational quality (partly related to the usage of less professional teachers) and higher costs for local communities.

The list could go on and on. While many of the recent policies being implemented or proposed in an Irish context, such as the re-introduction of third level fees, the relentless focus on rigorous assessment at all levels of the system (as enshrined, for example, in the Croke Park Agreement) and the elimination of certain academic subjects within teacher education programmes, may not have been initiated or imposed by the IMF per se, but if what has happened in other countries is anything to go by, neo-liberal-shaped policy prescriptions of this nature are often expanded upon, institutionalised and legitimised within the broader context of IMF loan conditionality and technical assistance.