Progress on education SDG ‘falling far short of target’

Progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 4 or SDG 4 on education is “falling far short of what is needed to achieve its target by 2030”, according to a statement by the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee distributed at the ministerial meeting on higher education at UNESCO’s 40th General Conference in Paris.

This is despite “sterling efforts of governments and partners to advance this transformative vision of education”, said the committee, which is a platform for universal cooperation and coordination on SDG 4.

The committee outlines three trends showing that the world faces a “learning crisis” that “threatens the entire 2030 Agenda”, because:

  • • On current trends 225 million children aged 6 to 17 will be out of school in 2030, a ‘mere’ 14% fall since 2017.

  • • Only 50% of youth complete secondary school and six and out of 10 children and adolescents worldwide do not achieve minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics.

  • • Participation at tertiary level remains “vastly unequal” within and across countries, with 20% of the world’s richest 25- to 29-year-olds completing four years of higher education, while less than 1% of the poorest do so.

The committee called for “political engagement at the highest level, stronger collective action and reinforced partnerships to realise our shared commitment and responsibility”.

It said: “This is not just about fulfilling the right to education but about shaping the future we want for our societies.”

The SDG-Education Committee said: “Four years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we remain convinced that equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning holds the key to achieving this universal and transformative agenda to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path, socially, environmentally and economically.”

It called for a bolder policy focus and interventions to address inclusion, not least for refugees and displaced people, greater attention to teacher recruitment and training, improving the relevance and quality of learning and accelerating gender equality at all levels of education.

It said this would require stronger capacity to implement reforms, invest in data to inform action, mobilise domestic financing and coordinate international cooperation to fill the financing gap and assure free public education.

As the higher education community gathered at UNESCO, Paris, to enhance inclusion, equity and mobility in higher education, including through leveraging the potential of technologies, the committee acknowledged the “determining role of higher education in achieving all the SDGs” and its focus on environmental sustainability, prosperity and social justice and inclusion through research, innovation and new study programmes, and in supporting progress towards SDG 4, through teacher training and lifelong learning opportunities, in particular.

More than 100 ministers and 100 university representatives who are part of the UNESCO Chairs programme convened at the meeting on 13 November. It was the first time in UNESCO’s history that ministers of education and university leaders came together to envisage international measures to improve inclusion and mobility in higher education.

They examined ways governments and higher education institutions can work together to meet the pressing challenge of creating a more inclusive global campus that can handle rapidly growing enrolment in higher education and increasing student mobility. They also envisaged ways for the world’s higher education sector to counter increasing inequalities and include marginalised groups.

And they prepared to the adopt a Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education aimed at facilitating student mobility and improving access to higher education across regions and continents.

“We need to take actions to enhance international cooperation in higher education, reinforce knowledge sharing, academic exchanges and mobility, and create a fair, transparent and inclusive global campus that offers quality, inclusive and lifelong learning opportunities for all,” argued Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education.

“One of the challenges we have in education is the democratisation of the credentialing process,” said Tina Beaudry-Mellor, minister of advanced education for Saskatchewan and member of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.

A rapidly changing landscape

The global higher education landscape is rapidly changing, with increasing internationalisation, diversification of providers and new modes of learning. Some 220 million students are currently enrolled in higher education worldwide, twice as many as 10 years ago, and further growth is expected, especially in Africa.

However, increased enrolment is not a reliable indicator of progress in achieving the internationally agreed 2030 Agenda’s goal of ensuring that educational systems “leave no one behind” and of providing equitable, affordable, quality higher education.

Institutions face the challenge of providing good-quality education to an increasingly diverse student population, including non-traditional learners and disadvantaged groups such as migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples.

“In too many institutions of higher education, structural barriers make a university education available only to those born into the most privileged groups of society,” said Fernando Reimers, professor of international education at Harvard University, United States, and member of UNESCO’s Futures of Education Report Commission. “Addressing the challenge of inclusion will require in many places expanding access to higher education.”

Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which has more than 500 member institutions in 50 countries, told University World News: “The Education 2030 steering committee has made a powerful statement that emphasises the need to deliver on the right to education in order to shape the future we want for our societies. We must take a whole sector approach to drive change at all levels of education, not just at school level.”

She said none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without the contribution of higher and tertiary education. “Through their teaching, research and community engagement, universities help drive social and economic development, produce knowledge and innovation to address global challenges, and provide evidence for informed public policy.

“Research contributes to the issues represented by all 17 SDGs, from climate change to inequality to displacement.”

She said for SDG 4, higher education has a role to play in quality education from cradle to grave. “Universities conduct critical research into early childhood development, and provide the content and pedagogy for all levels of education.

“We must also remember that people need access to education throughout their lives. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has impacted the kinds of jobs that are available, and new skills are needed for the roles of the future. Universities create relevant curricula for the new world of work and provide opportunities for lifelong learning.”

UNESCO said in a statement that by convening policy-makers and universities to the unprecedented meeting in Paris, it aims to foster political will, international cooperation and capacities in higher education to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and gain understanding for the Global Convention’s added value in facilitating this process.

Newman said that for years the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie and the International Association of Universities have lobbied for the essential contribution of higher education to the SDGs to be recognised.

“We welcome the Education 2030 steering committee’s statement that emphasises higher education’s crucial role in SDG 4, in particular.”