SEATTLE — In a policy report published January 2016, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that affordable textbooks are core to achieving the fourth goal of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals released this year. The U.N.’s goal number four is to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.”
The UNESCO report highlights the critical nature of affordable textbooks in improving student outcomes, citing one study where researchers provided one textbook to each student in a classroom. These textbooks increased student literacy scores by 5 to 20 percent.
A study evaluating the impact of a basic education program in Ghana concluded that between 1988 and 2003, the increased availability of textbooks helped raise students’ mathematics and English test scores.
However, the lack of access to textbooks and high cost of textbooks means that thousands of students are missing out on the opportunity for improved educational outcomes. In Cameroon, only one reading textbook existed for every 12 students as of 2012. Mathematics textbooks were even more scarce, with only one textbook available for 14 second grade students.
A survey of primary schools in 11 developing countries revealed that on average, 15 to 20 percent of fourth grade students either lack a textbook or must share one. In some countries, this percentage is much higher. For example, 69 percent of Paraguay students and 49 percent of students in the Philippines reported that they had no mathematics textbook or had to share one.
Recently, a few countries have experienced more acute textbook shortages. Kenya, Malawi and Namibia experienced rapid increases in student enrollment between 2000 and 2007, but textbook availability did not keep pace with student population growth, leading to a lack of accessible materials.
However, lacking access to textbooks does not always result from a lack of supply. In Malawi, teachers have been reluctant to pass textbooks out to students for fear that they would be damaged. Due to uncertainty over future supplies, teachers in Sierra Leone have preferred to hoard textbooks rather than use them.
Many students lack access to textbooks because they are not affordable. Raw material costs, production costs and shipping costs all play a role in high textbook prices. Industry factors may also drive up textbook prices. If the textbook industry is monopolized by a large company or the government, textbooks tend to be more expensive.
Schools also lack the funds to purchase textbooks, as the recurrent budgets of most education systems cover teacher salaries and little else. Thus families often must pay for textbooks, exacerbating problems with income inequality and educational achievement.
A 2008 study conducted by the World Bank found that in 11 out of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, textbooks were being paid for entirely by families rather than governments and education systems. Hence, the price of textbooks creates a significant barrier to entry for low-income families hoping to provide their children with a high-quality education.
To both increase access to and reduce the cost of textbooks, the UNESCO policy report points to Gavi as a successful model to follow. Gavi is a “global Vaccine Alliance” that unites the public and private sectors to create equal access to new and underused vaccines for children growing up in extreme poverty.
Gavi’s business model is to pool demand for new vaccines in developing countries, providing patients in developing countries with more leverage to bargain with pharmaceutical manufacturers. Gavi also offers developing countries long-term and predictable financial support.
While the UNESCO report concedes that the differences between the health and education sectors preclude Gavi’s model from perfectly resolving issues with textbook access and costs, it highlights seven recommendations adopted from the Gavi business model:
1. Carry out effective demand forecasting to enable predictable funding and reduce waste.
2. Increase public sector funding for textbooks.
3. Channel a larger share of resource for textbooks through one central fund.
4. Incentivize increased domestic funding for textbooks so that external resources for textbooks are matched by commitments from domestic governments.
5. Match private-donor funding.
6. Pool demand for textbooks.
7. Report on textbook spending on a transparent way so more data can be gathered on how much is spent on textbooks by both governments and donors.
Of the many targets listed under the U.N.’s Sustainable Development goal number four, one is that by 2030, “all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.” Hopefully by taking steps to increase access to affordable textbooks, this goal can be achieved much sooner than 2030.