Better education and a stronger innovation drive are crucial for achieving higher rates of economic growth and prosperity in any country. Countries that prioritize improvements in education – from the pre-primary to the university level – and innovation are better positioned to adapt to economic change and help raise the living standards for their people.
Education equips individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute to the economy, with the ability to learn – and unlearn – continuously. Innovation involves the creation of new products, processes, and services that expand the capacity of enterprises and economies. In fact, the most innovative countries tend to be the most successful economically.
Take the case of Estonia. In 1993, Estonia’s GDP per capita was a modest about $6,480. In comparison, Japan’s was $24,000. Fast forward 30 years. Estonia’s GDP per capita was equal to that of Japan in 2022, at nearly $43,000. Estonia now boasts the highest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores in math, science and reading in Europe. A similar ‘miracle’ happened in Korea, a country that moved from developing country status to an advanced economy in just one generation. How can countries replicate Estonia’s or Korea’s success and achieve faster economic growth and standards of living that are like to those of high-income countries?
Through education and innovation.
Here in Armenia, education has been a priority since the country’s independence in 1991. The government has made efforts to increase the number of schools, provide free education for primary and secondary schools, and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. As a result, Armenia has a high literacy rate of over 99% and over 60% of adults have completed at least secondary education.
Yet, the education system is not producing the needed outcomes. Children born in Armenia today will be only 58% as productive during their lives as they could have been if they had received quality health and education services available. Armenian children are expected to complete 11.3 years of schooling. This decreases to 8 years if the quality of education is factored in. Pre-primary school and secondary school enrollment is low compared to peer countries in Europe and Central Asia (ECA). It is the quality of education that is the most pressing concern. Armenia’s TIMSS mathematics score – a standardized test for children in grade 4 – is one of the lowest in the region. The quality of tertiary education is below the ECA average: it is nearly 30% lower than Georgia, and half as low as the new EU member states. These outcomes are not surprising, given that public spending on education is just under 2.7% of GDP in Armenia, which is half that of the EU.
The World Bank is helping Armenia improve its education system, including through the Education Improvement Project, which is enhancing the conditions for learning across educational levels by extending preschool coverage, providing laboratory equipment, informing curriculum revisions, and improving the relevance and quality of higher education institutions. The many outcomes of the project include new preschools in rural communities, training of preschool teachers, and grants to higher education institutions through the Competitive Innovation Fund. Under the EU4Innovation Trust Fund, the World Bank is also helping improve the quality of STEM education. By September this year, Armenia will have a fully revised STEM curriculum for middle and high schools (grades 5 to 12), improved learning materials, school-based STEM laboratories and as well as enhanced student-centered instructional methodologies/teaching methods.
Education is essential but alone is not sufficient to drive economic growth. How knowledge is applied by firms, researchers and workers through innovation is critical. In Armenia, there is a disconnect between education, research, and the link to entrepreneurs and markets. For example, academic research in Armenia is dominated by the National Academy of Sciences which comprises more than 30 separate research institutes. None of these institutes are formally integrated with any teaching university in the country. There is also a proliferation of universities in Armenia, with 26 public (state) and 33 private universities; many of the latter, in name only. In Denmark, a country with almost twice the population, there are only eight state-recognized and funded universities offering research-based education.
Consolidating the universities in Armenia, merging them with the research institutes, and focusing government attention on accreditation could help address some of these challenges. It is also essential to reform the university admission process to incentivize talented high schoolers to apply. The government could also support the commercialization of research. In many advanced economies, universities are prodigious producers of knowledge and basic research output, and the private sector, the user of this research, is very vibrant. Without practical application, research may have little impact on the country’s growth potential.
Extensive work by the World Bank shows that human capital is at the core of efforts to strengthen innovation and technology adoption. In Armenia, as in many other countries, human capital is one of the main binding constraints to growth.
While the government has taken significant steps and has initiated important reforms to promote both education and innovation, more is needed to realize their potential. By making a greater investment in education and innovation, Armenia can build a knowledge-based economy that can help the country deliver a development miracle and elevate standards of living to those of high-income countries. The dialogue at the recent panel discussion on “Growth, Education, and Innovation” could help policymakers in their efforts to transform education and innovation in Armenia.
This op-ed was originally published in Banks.am via World Bank