Worlds of Education

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Photo: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

IMF policies undermine quality education

published 19 April 2022 updated 12 May 2022
written by:

Teacher quality, status, and conditions matter. Quality learning depends on quality teaching, delivered by qualified, well-supported, and motivated teachers.

The fundamental role of teachers in building sustainable societies was recognised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2015. UN member states agreed to substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers to meet the new global education goal and its targets.

The critical role of teachers was reaffirmed by the education community in the Incheon Declaration and the Education 2030 Framework for Action, adopted by UNESCO member states and partners in May and November 2015, respectively. In Incheon, South Korea, governments and partners made a firm promise, stating:

We will ensure that teachers and educators are empowered, adequately recruited, well-trained, professionally qualified, motivated and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems”.

However, government efforts to train, recruit, and retain qualified teachers have been hampered by the policies of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and, in particular, those of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The conditionalities of the IMF and institutions’ lending advice often put a cap on public spending. This, in turn, curtails the capacity of developing countries to train, recruit, and pay teachers fair and decent remuneration.

Evidence of negative impact of IMF policies

Recent evidence from four country case studies (Malawi, Nepal, Senegal, and Zambia) [1] commissioned by Education International shows that the IMF continues to steer countries towards austerity policies and the cutting or freezing of the public sector wage bill.

In Nepal, for example, the IMF has frequently called on the Government to limit its public sector wage bill. In 2017, it recommended cuts to government spending on health and education workers [2]. In 2018, it called for more to be done to ensure fiscal sustainability [3]. In 2020, the Government was advised to freeze the public sector wage bill at 2.9 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) up until 2024 [4]. However, faced with public criticism to the introduction of austerity measures, the Nepalese Government increased the salaries of its employees by 2,000 Nepalese Rupees (approximately USD$16) per month in 2021.

In Malawi, the public wage bill increased by 1.5 per cent of GDP - from 6.9 per cent to 8.4 per cent - between 2015 and 2020, despite the IMF’s advice to constrain it. In 2020, following Malawi’s application for a Rapid Credit Facility loan, the IMF called for freezing the wage bill with a ceiling of 7.5 per cent [5]. In November 2021, an IMF statement advised that growth in wages be curtailed [6].

In Zambia, the IMF advised the government to cut the public sector wage bill by one per cent between 2016-23 and to meet a target of 7.7 per cent [7]. However, it is not clear if this advice has been heeded, given the Government of Zambia’s recent public announcement about recruiting more teachers.

Teachers in the above-mentioned countries have shared harrowing stories of how IMF policies have impacted on their daily work, living and working conditions. For example, a teacher in Nepal commented:

As our salaries are very low, we have to take loans from relatives in order to meet our monthly expenses and also have to pay the interest on them. When we receive our salaries, we pay back the loans. This cycle has been continuing for the past 12 years. It has become a way of life for me.”

Similar stories have been recited by teachers in Malawi and Senegal; one teacher from Zambia said, “ My salary is a slave salary. Our conditions of service are pathetic”. Teachers have also recounted how they have been forced to moonlight in order to supplement their meagre salaries.

In addition to poor salaries, teachers in the four case-study countries expressed serious concern about the high teacher-pupil ratios and workload. According to a teacher from Malawi:

The teacher shortage makes it hard for teachers to teach effectively. For instance, in my case, I fail to prepare thoroughly for the class in terms of preparing the resources to use in class. At a family level, I am unable to attend to my family since most of my time is spent at school due to the heavy workload.”

Large class sizes, double shifts and multigrade teaching are the biggest contributors to teacher workload and poor work-life balance. Removing caps on public spending and teacher wage bills would contribute to enabling governments to train, recruit, and improve the working conditions of teachers.

Teacher shortages persist, undermining quality education

Unable to recruit more qualified teachers as a result of the wage bill constraints of the IMF, many countries have resorted to hiring unqualified individuals to work as teachers.

For example, according to researcher estimates, in Malawi, in 2020, at least 3,305 teachers in primary education were unqualified. With a primary school pupil-teacher ratio of 65:1 in 2019-2020, Malawi needs to recruit 52,459 primary school teachers to achieve the UNESCO-recommended ratio of 40:1 by 2030. However, recruiting the required number of teachers would increase the education wage bill by 63 per cent. This in turn would push the overall public wage bill to 9.9 per cent of GDP (2.4 per cent higher than the IMF’s recommended ceiling of 7.5 per cent). The IMF-imposed ceiling is unrealistic and should be removed.

In Zambia, it is estimated that there were over 50,000 unemployed trained and qualified teachers at the end of 2021. This is a significant waste of human and financial resources and undermines the country’s efforts to reduce unemployment.

In Nepal, the government recruited only an additional 15 per cent of teachers between 2014 and 2018, yet the number of students increased by 50 per cent. It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 temporary teachers working in Nepalese public schools. These teachers have precarious contracts, do not enjoy the same labour rights as permanent teachers and receive lower salaries. A quality education system cannot be built with precarious workers.

Education unions push back on IFI policies

Education unions, united under Education International, have joined forces with other Global Unions, civil society organisations, and like-minded partners to challenge the destructive policies of the IMF, World Bank, and other donor institutions in the education systems of developing countries. For example, through the Tax and Education Alliance initiative (Tax-Ed Alliance), Education International and partners have produced research evidence confirming the negative nature of the IMF’s policies. The Tax-Ed Alliance has also engaged in union capacity building, mobilisation, and advocacy.

Through its Global Response campaign, Education International has also challenged the privatisation, marketisation, commercialisation, and commodification of education. In particular, Education International and its member organisations (education unions) have challenged the establishment and funding of for-profit private schools, including the so-called low-cost private schools, as such schools undermine inclusion, equity, quality, and sustainability.

Through the campaign, Education International has carried out research on privatisation trends and impacts, intensified its advocacy, and called for the regulation of private education provision, including the activities of Edu-businesses or corporate school chains. For example, Education International and member organisations have put pressure on the World Bank, urging it to stop funding Bridge International Academies, one of the biggest international school chains operating in African and other countries. Education unions’ efforts resulted in a recent decision by the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), to stop investing in Bridge International Academies. The IFC had invested more than US$10 million in Bridge International Academies’ operations in Africa and supported the company's expansion elsewhere.


The research evidence discussed in this article and the experiences of teachers in the classroom clearly show that IMF and IFI policies continue to undermine quality education for all. Given the critical importance of qualified teachers for quality teaching and learning, efforts to improve ‘learning outcomes’, as championed by the same IFIs, will remain nothing but a pipe dream unless these same IFIs remove their restrictive and destructive policies. To achieve broad-based learning outcomes, which prepare students for life and decent work, the IMF and all IFIs and donors should encourage and support governments to invest more in education, teachers, and education support personnel instead of curtailing such life-changing investments.

1. ^

The research evidence is summarised in the forthcoming Education International study, Teacher Wage Bill Constraints: Perspectives from the Classroom. Summary available here.

2. ^

International Monetary Fund (IMF). (2017). 2017 ARTICLE IV CONSULTATION. Washington: International Monetary Fund.

3. ^

International Monetary Fund (IMF). (2019). 2018 ARTICLE IV CONSULTATION. Washington: International Monetary Fund.

4. ^

International Monetary Fund (IMF). (2020). 2020 ARTICLE IV CONSULTATION. Washington: International Monetary Fund.

6. ^

International Monetary Fund (2021). IMF Staff Completes 2021 Article IV Mission to the Republic of Malawi. Press Release No.21/320. 5 November 2021.

7. ^

ActionAid, Educational International, and Public Services International. (2021). The Public Versus Austerity: Why Public Sector Wage Bill Constraints Must End. Johannesburg: ActionAid.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.