Images from AP.

By Fergal Barry-Murphy and Natalie Southwick

While Asia may have its detractors when it comes to issues like human rights and democratic freedoms, one area where it excels is education. Asian – and especially east Asian – universities are a growing presence at the top of the major rankings and Asian students swept the boards in the most recent round of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, all while keeping education spending at sustainable levels.

In Latin America – a developing region often compared to Asia – a markedly different situation is emerging. Drive down Mexico City’s hectic Periférico Sur avenue and you will notice the abusómetro (“abuse-meter”), a digital display that counts the education funds being squandered by the Mexican government by the minute, and even second. The digital display was put in place by advocacy group Mexicanos Primeros, which says almost $3 billion from the annual federal education budget is being spent each year on costs not directly related to education

The Mexico example is an extreme case — and the “abuse-meter” an equally extreme reaction — but the case brings attention to the issue of ballooning education budgets in countries that are not seeing noticeable improvement in student test scores or global competitiveness, despite government promises to do exactly that. At the same time it highlights how some countries, particularly in Asia, deliver high quality education systems on relatively lean budgets.

Writing for the Miami Herald on August 20, Andres Oppenheimer notes:

According to World Bank figures, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina spend between 5.2 and 6.3 percent of their respective gross domestic products on education, much more than China or Singapore. But while student performance in Latin American countries has fallen in standardized international tests, that of China and Singapore has improved.

Japan and Singapore, two of the highest-scoring countries on the 2012 PISA tests, had modest education spending, with Japan devoting 3.9 percent of GDP to education as of 2012, and Singapore spending just 3 percent last year.

As the World Bank graph below shows, education spending in three of Asia’s most developed countries is not only significantly lower than their Latin American counterparts, but also well below the global average spend.

Source: World Bank.

The PISA tests, administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, offer a global comparison of learning and aptitude in reading, science and math, testing more than 510,000 students in 65 different economies. In the most recent tests, from 2012, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea dominated across the board, sharing the top five positions in all three areas. High-spending Argentina, meanwhile, came in at 59th overall, with Brazil just above it at 58 and Mexico a few spots higher at 53 — all scoring well below the global average, despite their large education budgets.

While Singapore and east Asian countries led the way in the PISA rankings, other Southeast Asian nations didn’t fare so well – with the exception of Vietnam (17th). Indonesia was one place from bottom at 64th, Malaysia was 52nd and Thailand 50th. The low rankings come despite increased education spending in recent years, especially in Malaysia and Thailand.

The World Bank graph below shows education spending in these nations over the last 10 years:

Source: World Bank.

Thailand, in particular, has come in for flak over the poor standard of education there in recent years, especially ahead of ASEAN integration in 2015. As the graph above shows, education spending in Thailand almost doubled from 2010 to 2012, though serious concerns remain about whether there has been any significant improvement in the standard of education. Worryingly, Thailand’s PISA ranking was also 50th in 2009.

(MORE: Thai education failures: PISA scores & a challenge for the 21st century)

Thailand’s draft budget for 2015, released earlier this month, sets aside almost 20% of the total budget allocation for education – an investment of approximately US$16 billion. In a system that has been dogged by corruption and poor practice for years, it remains to be seen whether this money can be put to good use or whether Thailand needs a public “abuse-meter” of its own.