With the Covid-19 pandemic unfolding across the world, schools, universities, daycare centers and other places of learning went into lockdown. As a response, in many countries education went digital, with students and instructors relying on online tools to continue teaching and learning. Yet, the shift to online teaching happened more smoothly in some places than in others. The pandemic revealed great disparities in the ability of countries and education institutions to adjust to the new situation. These disparities, as we will illustrate in the following, reflect the endowment of national education systems which, in turn, is shaped in important ways by variation in public opinion on education spending.
Countries with higher levels of public education spending seem better prepared to cope with the challenges of providing education in times of lockdown. The availability of sufficient resources allowed policymakers to equip education institutions, instructors and students with the tools needed for effective online learning. In less well-endowed education systems, insufficient access to IT infrastructure presents particular problems for disadvantaged students, which intensifies educational inequalities. To illustrate this, Figure 1 displays a robust positive association between a ranking index based on data from the OECD on the possibilities for online learning in schools on the one hand and levels of public spending on education as percentage of GDP on the other. In addition to possibilities for online learning, with students gradually returning to their education institutions, having adequately equipped buildings and sufficient teaching personnel becomes decisive for being able to provide teaching under social distancing regulation.
Given what we see in Figure 1, why do countries not simply increase educational investment? In our recent book published by Cambridge University Press, we analyze the complex dynamics by which public opinion influences policy-making in education. Across countries, public opinion plays a strong role in shaping education reforms, from early childhood education and care, to schools, vocational education and training, and higher education, including issues regarding the governance of education, and, what we consider here, levels of public education spending. Yet, in some cases public opinion on education policy is more influential than in others. Its influence hinges crucially on how salient and coherent the signal of public opinion to policymakers is. We illustrate these claims with insights from four European countries (Germany, Sweden, the UK, and Spain) for a period of roughly a decade preceding the outbreak of Covid-19.
Where public opinion sends a loud and clear signal in favor of additional public education spending, governments tend to react and increase spending. In Germany, for instance, during recent years the issue of increasing investments in early childhood education and care received a lot of public attention and support for increasing investments was widespread across societal groups. Even though most parties agreed on the basic necessity to expand childcare, the process of expansion has taken more than a decade. Having started from very low levels, the increased supply of places is still not sufficient to meet the demand, in particular in times where the pandemic generates additional needs for staff.
Sweden is another example where the salience of education has been generally high, and has been growing over the last decades, and where broad segments of the population have supported public education spending. In line with this broad popularity, the level of public education spending is among the highest across the Western countries and even the right-wing parties support the high spending levels. Interestingly, although being well-equipped for digital learning, school closure has been relatively limited in Sweden. This high priority of leaving schools open (while obviously also being related to other factors beyond the realm of education) could be read as another indication of the importance of education in public opinion in Sweden.
The signal of public opinion can also be loud, but noisy. When citizens have conflicting preferences towards education spending (i.e. when individuals disagree about the preferred level of spending), preferences of the parties in government and of their core constituencies matter more in affecting decisions regarding education spending. In the period following the 2008-9 financial crisis, in which important technological progress with potential relevance for digital learning happened, austerity pressures dominated in countries such as the UK and Spain (in the former internally, in the latter externally imposed). Even though public education spending was also highly popular in these countries, the signal of public opinion was noisy to the extent that right-wing voters in the UK also valued the goal of the Conservative government of pursuing budget consolidation. In Spain, citizens disagreed about the distribution of budget cuts between public and private schools. While public resistance prevented some of the most unpopular budget cuts, the loud, but more noisy signal of public opinion might explain why governments might have not invested more in the digital infrastructure of their education systems in these countries.
A loud signal of public opinion on education in general does not preclude the possibility that some sectors of the education system receive much less public attention than others. Where the signal of public opinion is more muted, because the salience of the issue of education spending is low, public opinion is less influential in affecting reform relative to other factors, such as the influence of interest groups. In our four countries, this has applied to the lower tracks of secondary education and to the transition of students from those tracks to vocational education and training (e.g. in Germany, the UK, and Spain). Students from lower educational backgrounds are often less able to make their voices heard. The lower salience of issues concerning those educational tracks grants more influence to interest groups (e.g. union and employer organizations involved in the governance of vocational education and training), and contributes to the risk of those educational tracks being subordinated to more salient areas of the education system, potentially ending up with a smaller share of public investment.
To conclude, salience and coherence of public attitudes towards education condition in decisive ways to what extent public opinion matters in affecting public education spending (and education reform, more generally). The implications of educational endowment for educational opportunities and inequalities are becoming particularly visible now under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on national education systems.
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