The global cost of inclusive refugee education

World Bank and UNHCR (2021)


An estimated 48 percent of school-age refugee children are out of school—an estimated 77 percent of refugee children attend primary school, 31 percent of refugee youth attend secondary education, and just 3 percent are able to access tertiary opportunities (compared to global access figures of 91 percent, 84 percent and 37 percent for primary, secondary and tertiary levels, respectively). UNHCR estimates that refugee children miss out on an average of three to four years of schooling due to forced displacement. Most refugee children are living in low- and middle-income countries where education services are already stretched to meet the needs of citizens and ‘learning poverty’ is high, which means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age ten.

Refugee education has historically been addressed through separate or parallel systems as a temporary response to refugee emergencies. With support from the international community, refugee host governments are moving towards inclusive, integrated education systems. There is a growing consensus that integrating refugees into national education systems is the only way to ensure sustainability and to give refugees proper accreditation for their progress in education. Integration can also lead to improved education services for underserved local communities in host countries.

This paper estimates the cost of education for refugees aged 5-17 years in their current host country, with a specific focus on low- and middle-income countries hosting 7,000 or more refugees (representing a pre-COVID-19 baseline). Estimates are based on the assumption that refugee students receive an education on par with host country students in terms of teacher quality, school infrastructure, access to learning materials and other inputs.

The costing begins with the unit cost of delivering public education in each host country for each level of education (calculated as public expenditure on education divided by public enrollment). Unit costs are adjusted upwards to reflect the additional costs of integrating refugees into public education systems (for example, through accelerated learning programs, psychosocial support, support in the language of instruction, teacher training in refugee inclusiveness etc.) using ‘refugee education coefficients’ (20 percent for pre-primary and primary education, 35 percent for secondary education). Additionally, unit costs for early childhood education (ECE) are increased by a further 30 percent to account for historical levels of low investment in pre-primary education. Finally, unit costs are inflation-adjusted to estimate costs over the education cycle.

This methodology takes into account the flow of students through 13 years of education, including one year of pre-primary education, six years of primary education and six years of secondary education. The analysis assumes that there are no additional influxes of refugees beyond UNHCR figures as of June 2020 and that refugees do not leave their present host countries.

The analysis relies on data from a number of sources including: (a) UNHCR data on refugees, asylum seekers and Venezuelans displaced abroad; (b) UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) data on initial public expenditure by level of education (which is divided by total public enrollment at that level of education to calculate unit costs); (c) coefficients for the inclusion of marginalized children at pre-primary, primary and secondary education in the 2015 EFA Global Education Monitoring Report on global education costing.

Main estimates:

  • The cohort-average annual cost of providing education to all refugee students in low-income countries (LICs), lower middle-income-countries (LMICs) and upper middle-income countries (UMICs) is estimated at US$4.85 billion (in the range of US$4.44 billion and US$5.11 billion).
  • While LICs and LMICs account for half of school-age refugees, their share of the financing envelope is only 20 percent.
  • The average unit cost for refugee education is US$1,051. There are large variations by country income categorization: the average unit cost for refugee education in LICs, LMICS and UMICs is US$171, US$663 and US$2,085 respectively. The unit cost for refugee students in UMICs is almost 12 times higher on average than that for LICs and 3 times higher than that for LMICs. There are also large variations by level of education: average refugee unit costs globally are US$1,156, US$925 and US$1,171 for pre-primary, primary and secondary education, respectively.
  • The cohort-average annual refugee education cost as a percentage of public expenditure on primary and secondary education in host countries is 3.8 percent on average. It averages 4.7 percent, 2.1 percent and 4.3 percent in LICs, LMICs and UMICs, respectively. However, these averages mask large variations between countries.

The authors recognize that the cost of refugee-specific education programs will differ by country and might not match the global average coefficients assumed in their calculations. The authors call for improved data collection and reporting on refugee education, especially on demographics, the cost of refugee education programs and how these evolve over time as the initial emergency response becomes a protracted situation, and the unit cost of public education in host countries. Better data would lead to improvements in measuring the impact and contributions of host countries and would increase the accuracy of refugee education financing estimates. The authors also recognize that the provision of financial resources is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for universal access and completion of education, and that improvements in quality and learning outcomes are also not directly correlated with greater education expenditure.