UNESCO says pandemic exposed flaws in education systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only created profound ‘learning losses’ globally, but has also revealed “structural flaws in education systems worldwide”, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The agency highlighted these losses and flaws during a ‘Pre-Summit’ on 28 to 30 June at its headquarters in Paris, with some 2,000 participants, including more than 100 ministers and more than 30 deputy ministers of education discussing how to transform education, amid calls for urgent action by youth leaders.

A precursor to the United Nations Transforming Education meeting slated for September in New York with heads of state, the Paris gathering focused on five ‘thematic action tracks’ encompassing inclusiveness, equity, skills for life and sustainable development, the teaching profession and digital learning, as well as the financing of education.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, said the Pre-Summit was an opportunity to “share international experiences and priorities” so that states could move forward in the “same direction” to resolve the current “crisis” in education and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, providing quality lifelong learning to all.

She said that, even before the pandemic, 259 million children (one-sixth of the world’s population in that age group) were not in school, a situation that affects, not only primary and secondary education, but which has disturbing implications for the future of higher education as well.

“And there were more than 770 million adults who could not read or write, two-thirds of whom were women, reflecting persistent inequalities. But this situation has been made worse by the pandemic,” Azoulay added, calling for a “true Copernican revolution” especially in response to the issues of digital transformation and climate change.

According to the director-general, “21st-century education must respond to the needs of the 21st century and its challenges”.

She said that member states could build on certain existing initiatives in meeting the objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals; these initiatives include UNESCO’s Report on the Futures of Education as well as a “global architecture for education” – with a new High-Level Steering Committee (or HLSC), co-chaired by Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio and by Azoulay.

Responsible for “global coordination and monitoring of SDG 4”, this committee will be expected to follow up on actions beyond the New York meeting.

Meanwhile, it has called for heads of state and government to push education to the top of the political agenda, and Azoulay said the UNESCO report should also be a reference for all.

The report is the work of an international commission, chaired by the President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde, who attended the Pre-Summit, alongside the virtual participation of other members. The commission issued a statement outlining the changes necessary for education to serve “shared needs” and “common futures”.

“Now, it is time for every single country to take ownership of this report and to make it a tool for change,” Azoulay said, describing crucial aspects such as “the need to develop critical thinking, notably through media and information literacy” and the need to “mainstream education on nature, on sustainability”.

Earlier, in May, the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) took place in Barcelona and included the presentation of another report – Reimagining the Futures of Higher Education: Insights from a scenario development process towards 2050 – commissioned by UNESCO and coordinated by Mpine Makoe, dean of the college of education at the University of South Africa.

In contrast to the Barcelona conference, however, and to the disappointment of some delegates, higher education was not a specific focus at the Pre-Summit in Paris.

Still, the field was included in the overall discussion and in the action plan, said Peter Wells, who is chief of the Section for Higher Education at UNESCO.

He told University World News in a telephone interview that, while WHEC is clearly UNESCO’s flagship programme for higher education in the decade ahead, the sector is implicit in all the action tracks as aspects of lifelong learning.

“A key take-away is a lot of groundswell support to really see education, not in its silos of early years – foundation, primary, secondary, tertiary – but to see it as a lifelong commitment to education,” he said. “I think this is a key to transforming education and how we look at education.”

He said that the higher-education community needed to ensure that secondary-school students’ creativity, diversity, passions and interests continued on to university level alongside the focus on academic activity.

“This means really widening the scope of the traditional set programmes and courses that constitute a bachelor or masters degree – but particularly bachelor – more in the liberal arts tradition,” Wells said.

“That’s a key reflection for our higher-education community: to extend, to value young people’s secondary experiences but also to prepare them for doing things that they have never heard of before when they finally graduate.”

Regarding the digital aspects of education and the pandemic, Wells said the transformation that’s necessary came out very clearly in Barcelona – that what was often considered impossible before, especially by traditional universities or higher-education institutions, had proven to be necessary, with online courses giving opportunities to rural communities, for instance. On the other hand, those without computers, internet access or even electricity, suffered.

“There is a huge diversity there in harnessing the uses of technology that benefit everybody,” he added. “Nobody wants to go online full-time – that’s not good for … social interaction, mental well-being, we all know that. But there’s room for a compromise, room for a hybrid modality.”

More attention on student health needed

The Pre-Summit included a Youth Forum that brought together youth activists and representatives, and the issue of online learning also concerned many. In interviews with University World News, some participating students said that universities should have paid more attention to students’ mental health as the pandemic progressed and courses moved to a remote format.

“I think it’s good that world leaders, international organisations and students got the opportunity to meet up and to come together to discuss transforming education, but I think we did not have time to go deeper into certain subjects,” said Lilia Touil, 22, a masters student studying international and European law at the Université Paris Cité who participated in the Pre-Summit and spoke at the closing of the forum.

“With the lockdowns, it was really hard to work from home for many students … and mental health issues were not discussed sufficiently, because we cannot cover everything,” she told University World News.

“But at the same time, I’m happy to say, we mentioned a lot of important topics such as disabled people, digital education, financing education, and the need to make education accessible to everyone.”

Asked whether universities were adapting adequately to the pandemic, she responded: “First of all, we were not prepared for this crisis, and the pandemic showed us that the system needs to be renewed and transformed.”

She said her university “managed well”, but that higher-education institutions need to learn from the crisis.

Wells agreed that universities were taken by surprise at “suddenly having to go online”, and that, while some institutions coped better than others, the health crisis “took its toll on everybody – not just students, but also faculty, teachers in schools, everybody in work life”.

He said some higher-education institutions were able to offer counselling services online, but not everyone was able to do this – therefore, urgent measures need to be taken to correct the flaws in providing services for students’ well-being.

“Good practices include always having on-campus student counselling services available,” Wells said. “With lockdown scenarios, this service was crucial but limited to technology and connectivity, so it hasn’t been universal.”