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Small Nations

Definitions, Problems Faced by Small Nations, Benefits Gained by Small Nations, The Range of Provision

In purely numerical terms, the world is a world of small nations. More than half the globe's sovereign states have populations of less than 5 million, and about fifty have populations below 1.5 million. Some of these states are islands, some are archipelagos, and some are enclaves. The states are scattered in all parts of the world, but with concentrations in the Caribbean and South Pacific.

In 1985 the Commonwealth Secretariat convened a seminal meeting on education in small nations. Its report stated the following:

The style of educational development … is too frequently modeled on what is appropriate and fashionable in large states. Small countries are not simply a scaled-down version of large countries. They have an ecology of their own. We believe there is a cluster of factors which suggest particular strategies in the smaller states of the world. (quoted in Bray, p. 9)

The majority of small nations are members of the Commonwealth, therefore, this statement set the agenda for a major program of work by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Other work since the mid-1980s has also made a major contribution to conceptual understanding and practical strategies.


Small is of course a relative concept. Singapore may feel small in comparison with China, India, and Indonesia, but might feel large compared with Fiji. Likewise, Fiji might feel small compared with Papua New Guinea, but might feel large compared with Tuvalu, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

Most of the literature recognizes that relative distinctions are important, but nevertheless uses absolute indicators. Population is usually the main criterion, though common alternative or supplementary indicators are area and size of economy. One common cutoff point in the literature is a population size of 1.5 million. However, this cutoff point is entirely arbitrary, and it is often more appropriate to examine issues along a continuum of size.

It is also necessary to consider the term nation. The usual starting point is an entity with sovereign autonomy. However, many nonsovereign but self-governing territories have attributes that resemble those of their sovereign counterparts. Thus to some extent the literature on education in small nations may embrace such entities as Montserrat (a colony of the United Kingdom), Macau (a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China), and Guam (an unincorporated territory of the United States).

Problems Faced by Small Nations

Among the problems common to small nations, three deserve specific attention: economic vulnerability, isolation, and high costs of administration. These problems have implications for education as well as for other domains.

On the economic side, most small nations are dependent on international forces over which they have almost no control. Some small countries have become wealthy from tourism or tax-free trading, but these activities are sensitive to international exchange rates and the economies of other countries. Also, few small nations have sufficiently convenient geographic positions to enable them to earn money in this way. Many are also highly dependent on cash crops, and are unable to diversify. Economic fluctuations can create crises for educational budgets. Also, dependence on external forces may require small nations to match their education systems to those of larger countries.

Many small nations, particularly island ones, also suffer from isolation. This may be geographic, political, and/or cultural. The people of Seychelles, for example, suffer from geographic isolation because they are 1,500 kilometers from any other country. It is costly to import and export goods, and it is expensive both to send local people abroad and to bring specialists from outside.

Small nations are also generally unable to achieve the economies of scale of their larger counterparts, for the machinery of government requires a basic number of administrators whatever the population size. Every country needs a head of state, for example, whether the person serves a large or a small population, and similar points may be made at all other administrative levels. Costs may be lowered if one person does two jobs, but this only reduces the problem and does not remove it. Personnel in ministries of education must be much more multifunctional than their counterparts in larger states.

Benefits Gained by Small Nations

On the other side of the coin are various benefits gained by small nations. Particularly worth highlighting are national identity, transparency, sensitivity to administrative changes, and interpersonal relations.

One of the greatest benefits for small nations arises from the fact that they are countries, even if they are small ones. The 8,000 people of Tuvalu, for example, receive more prominence than comparable groups of 8,000 in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Calcutta, or Mexico City. Likewise the island of Dominica receives much more prominence than islands of similar size off the coasts of Canada, Scotland, or Chile. Even if the individual votes of small state governments do not carry so much weight in some international forums as do the votes of large state governments, the small governments do at least have votes. Partly because of national visibility, small nations generally have much higher levels of per capita foreign aid than do medium-sized and large states.

Small nations may also benefit from transparency, because it is often easier to identify and diagnose problems. Moreover, once bottlenecks have been identified, it may be relatively easy to remedy them. Particularly in compact states, communications are usually good. It may be possible, for example, to call a meeting of all primary school principals–a task that would be impossible in a large country. Also, individual officers can have a big impact on the system. The education systems of small nations may be much more sensitive to reform initiatives.

Allied to these points are features of interpersonal relations. In countries with small populations, daily life is usually more personal than in those with large populations. Of course, this may cut both ways, for interpersonal relations can cause considerable difficulties. However, knowledge of other people's backgrounds and personalities can greatly facilitate the processes of planning and coordination.

The Range of Provision

Many small nations, including prosperous ones, encounter limits in the range of education which they can provide for their citizens. For example, the smallest of the small cannot operate universities; and the states that do operate universities can only have institutions with a restricted range of specialties.

The responses to these limits vary. Some small nations simply send their students abroad. Others group together to form regional universities. Particularly striking are the University of the West Indies, which was founded by fifteen member states in 1948, and the University of the South Pacific, which was founded by eleven member states in 1968. Other countries form partnerships with external institutions for particular courses and/or for distance education.

Each of these strategies has merits and problems. Sending students abroad and/or making arrangements with external institutions often makes more economic sense than trying to do everything domestically. Such arrangements also give planners flexibility to choose from a wide range of countries and institutions. However, external institutions are often perceived to be less relevant to local needs, and national pride often requires at least some domestic higher education provision. Regional institutions may be a compromise, but often suffer severe political strains.

Small Is Complex

An officer in the Ministry of Education of Maldives has pointed out the following:

Educational planning in small countries is sometimes thought to be less of a challenge than in large countries. The experience in Maldives and in other small countries indicates otherwise …. Small but complex societies have their unique problems in the planning and management of education. These include remoteness and isolation of small communities, no economies of scale, greater transparency, closely knit social organizations, heavy dependence on external assistance, and critical shortage of essential manpower. (quoted in Bray, p. 112)

Many planners in other small nations would echo these points. Planners have to find careful balances between the demands of small-state nationalism and the realities of economics and international dependence. The nature of the balances naturally varies in different situations; but the growing literature on this topic has shown a considerable range of tools that can be deployed.

In some ways, new technologies have reduced the challenges faced by small nations. The Internet, for example, has reduced the problems arising from the lack of specialist libraries in small nations by providing access to a variety of information electronically. The Internet also facilitates distance learning, and allows personnel in small nations to gain specialist assistance without going abroad.

At the same time, the new technologies and other forces have increased the challenges for small nations. Small nations have become more fully integrated into a globalized world, which has intensified questions of identity on the periphery of decision making. These factors have had major implications for curricula, examination systems, and even media of instruction.

Small nations should not be treated as merely scaled-down versions of larger countries. They have distinctive characteristics and ecologies of their own, which must be taken into consideration during analysis and planning of education systems.


ATCHOARENA, DAVID. 1993. Educational Strategies for Small Island States. Fundamentals of Educational Planning 44. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

BACCHUS, KAZIM, and BROCK, COLIN, eds. 1993. The Challenge of Scale: Educational Development in the Small Nations of the Commonwealth. London: The Commonwealth Secretariat.

BALDACCHINO, GODFREY, and BRAY, MARK, eds. 2001. "Human Resource Strategies for Small Nations." International Journal of Educational Development 21 (3):231–244.

BRAY, MARK. 1992. Educational Planning in Small Countries. Paris: UNESCO.

BRAY, MARK, and PACKER, STEVE. 1993. Education in Small Nations: Concepts, Challenges and Strategies. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

BRAY, MARK, and STEWARD, LUCY, eds. 1998. Examination Systems in Small Nations: Comparative Perspectives on Policies, Models and Operations. London: The Commonwealth Secretariat.

CROSSLEY, MICHAEL, and HOLMES, KEITH. 1999. Educational Development in the Small Nations of the Commonwealth: Retrospect and Prospect. London: The Commonwealth Secretariat.

"Education in Small Nations." 1991. Special issue. Prospects: Quarterly Review of Education 21 (4).

LILLIS, KEVIN M. 1993. Policy, Planning and Management of Education in Small Nations. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.


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