Few would argue that a thriving education system is vital to a country's success. But while education is a priority across the globe, the level of spending varies sharply from country to country.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published its annual Education at a Glance report, comparing a range of education sector metrics between its 36 member countries. Among those metrics is an exploration of how much money is spent on education by each of these countries.

Image: OECD, Education at a Glance 2018

In 2015, the average total expenditure on education, measured as a proportion of total government spending, was 11% for the OECD nations. The lowest was Greece, at 6%. Only five countries spent more than 15% on education: Brazil, Chile, Mexico and New Zealand were all between approximately 16% and 19%. But in Costa Rica, that figure was more than 30%.

Total public spending as a proportion of GDP reveals a slightly different picture. Here it averaged 4.5% for the OECD nations, with Norway taking the top spot at 7%, and Russia, Japan, and the Czech Republic lagging behind at around 3%.

In Costa Rica just 23% of adults go on to be educated at tertiary level. But those that do are likely to really notice the benefits. Tertiary-educated adults there earn around double that of their peers with lower levels of educational attainment. Younger Costa Ricans who have received a tertiary education experienced unemployment rates five or more percentage points lower in 2017 than in 2007. But, it is in respect of the gender gap where the benefits are perhaps the most visible. In Costa Rica the earnings of tertiary-educated women are closest to their male counterparts - although they are still 7% lower.

While roughly one-third of OECD members charge no tuition fees for students undertaking a bachelor’s degree at public tertiary institutions, the rest expect students to make a contribution toward funding. Another third charge fees lower than $2,400 per year. The remaining countries levy fees at sometimes much higher levels, in excess of $8,000 in some cases. When its data is separated out from the UK, England’s tuition fees are the highest at around $12,000 per year. Although one-third of US domestic students attend independent private institutions, where the fees can be significantly higher than that.

  Tuition fees fluctuate dramatically (OECD)
Image: OECD, Education at a Glance 2018

So, where does all this money go, you may be wondering?

Maintaining current expenditure accounts for 92% of all spending on education when an average is taken across the OECD members, varying from 79% in Latvia to 97% in both Belgium and the UK. The term “current expenditure” refers to those resources needed each year, and the single biggest element of current expenditure is teachers’ pay. Non-academic support staff wages come next, followed by supplies, food, maintenance and so on.

At primary and secondary levels, teachers’ pay takes up 78% of current expenditure, higher than in the tertiary sector where it is 68%. Colombia and Iceland are the only two that buck that trend.

The OECD average statutory salary for teachers is $44,397. Teachers in poorer countries are better paid in comparison with local wages than their developed world counterparts. According to the Center for Global Development (CGD), in most OECD countries, the average teacher earns somewhere between 75% and 150% of GDP per capita. “Most sub-Saharan African economies are at the other extreme. Looking at the two largest countries in the region, Nigeria pays teachers nearly 500% of per capita GDP, and Ethiopia nearly 700%,” the CGD says.

  Breakdown of spending shows teachers’ pay in OECD countries.
Image: OECD, Education at a Glance 2018