Unspeakable wealth inequality stands in the way of SDG 4

When analysing the challenges for widening access and success in higher education, there is a quote I frequently use from Professor Charles Hopkins, UNESCO chair at York University in Toronto, Canada, who stated, albeit back in 2011, that while globally only 6.7% of people had a college degree, more than 80% of the decision-makers in industry, community and politics had one.

In other words, higher education is opportunity, it is social mobility, and it is a tool to shape society.

However, as we all know, higher education unfortunately remains a privilege to which a large majority of people still do not have access.

Coming from a belief that unjust economic and political realities are upheld and reproduced by an unjust and unrepresentative allocation of power in society, we in the Global Student Forum (GSF) are convinced that equitable access to higher education can shift that power and transform socio-economic realities lastingly.

Therefore, higher education must be made accessible to everyone regardless of financial background, disability, race, gender and sexual orientation.

We advocate for a rights-based approach to equip and support vulnerable groups including political, ethnic and religious minorities, migrant or refugee communities as well as indigenous peoples to obtain higher education via flexible pathways, recognition of prior qualifications, affirmative action and targeted subsidies to break down economic barriers.

Furthermore, our higher education systems need to be decolonised and indigenised to include local sensitivities, traditions, cultures and critical worldviews of previously marginalised and excluded voices.

In parallel, we also need to remodel curricula to include a more direct linkage with employment, entrepreneurship, skills and vocational learning to attract students from diverse backgrounds.

Access to primary and secondary education

Now I want to dive into what we consider the single most important aspect in the equity discourse and provide a global perspective that relates to our ongoing advocacy efforts in the framework of the United Nations.

And while the focus of the Widening Access to Higher Education Network (WAHEN) is primarily on higher education, I would like to talk about access to primary and secondary as the baseline and precondition for a higher education pathway.

In the follow-up to the 2022 UN Transforming Education Summit and throughout the year 2023, we have been working closely with our members and colleagues from ActionAid and the TaxEd Alliance to mobilise our constituency, build capacity and drive a campaign that is centred around the imperative of tax justice to publicly and sufficiently fund education, including the right to higher education.

Why? Because for decades the student movement, teacher unions and other civil society actors have demanded quality, universal and free public education, yet these calls are so often neglected by leaders failing to perceive education as a long-term investment.

They regard it merely as an expenditure, especially whenever a crisis hits, and hide behind the excuse of insufficient available funding.

Shortfall of 70 million teachers

So we find ourselves in a world today where the financing gap to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) in low- and lower-middle-income countries is estimated at US$148 billion annually.

This means that due to lack of financial resources and poor working conditions, we are short of around 70 million teachers needed at primary and secondary level globally, as UNESCO reported in 2016.

It is beyond question that SDG 4 cannot be realised by 2030 without a significant and well-targeted increase in financing, particularly in those countries furthest from achieving quality education for all.

We also know that the needed investments are only possible if governments manage to mobilise national funds and strengthen public education systems through increased tax revenue, since the lion’s share of education funding, 97%, comes from domestic budgets.

Throughout the pandemic, national education budgets were further reduced, public debt increased significantly and an already under-financed education sector was left in an even more precarious state, increasing commodification tendencies and the influence of for-profit actors, specifically in developing countries, hitting the most marginalised the hardest.

COVID has also once again shown how our international system and our international financial architecture works – we helped big businesses and rich countries instead of those people and nations in need.

We know that only 0.13% of the US$12 trillion released as COVID relief globally was allocated to multilateral funding to low-income countries.

The emergency International Monetary Fund (IMF) Special Drawing Rights at the height of the pandemic – basically the IMF giving governments the prerogative to print money – allocated on average US$2,000 per European child but only US$60 per African child.

End hoarding and exploitation

If we really don’t want to leave anyone behind as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promise sets out so boldly, the international community needs to come to terms with the fact that we need to end the age of resource extractivism and colonial exploitation of developing countries to further accommodate the hoarding of unimaginable non-productive capital by a few – at a degree that has never been seen before in the history of humankind.

Across regions, our unions have denounced the role of big multinationals in exploiting tax loopholes and promoting corruption in order to avoid their tax responsibilities.

Multinationals, tech companies, and the private sector as a whole can be great allies in education, but it seems that they have for decades purposefully misunderstood their role.

As business actors, their role is not to run philanthropic education initiatives – but rather to fully pay their taxes to sustain public education through widening the fiscal space.

That’s why a serious political movement for the right to education and the right to higher education needs to be a movement that sets out to end tax privileges and preferential treatment to big corporations and the super-rich – because the money they steal is stolen from young people, from schools, from universities, from hospitals and other crucial public service institutions.

On a system level we need to achieve just representation of developing countries in global financial decision-making. Note that Belgium, the country in which I live, and the United Kingdom together have more voting power in the IMF than all Sub-Saharan countries combined.

We also need to end the discrimination in Special Drawing Rights and we need an end to austerity and public sector wage bill constraints where they affect education. We must also establish fair tax and trade rules with developing countries as equal partners – taking away the OECD’S tax rule monopoly and regulating global tax under a UN convention.

The issue of debt

Ultimately, that will also have to mean allowing for debt cancellation and debt reallocation for those countries whose annual debt serving surpasses their education spending.

It has been said – and I fully agree – that increased financing is not the sole solution. Equity and inclusion are complex and multifaceted issues. However, closing the education financing gap to achieve SDG 4 is a question of justice, a question of giving a chance to the most vulnerable.

I hope that whatever comes out of WAHEN’s plans to drive forward action on widening access and success will be serious about these deeply political and fundamental underlying issues.

We need to understand and acknowledge that the unspeakable wealth inequality in our world is ultimately what deprives the public of trillions of dollars and 250 million out-of-school children of their right to education.

Sebastian Berger is the executive director of the Global Student Forum and is former vice president of the European Students’ Union. He is also co-chair of the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development’s Education and Academia Stakeholder Group. This article is an edited version of a speech he gave to WAHEN in Oxford, United Kingdom, in late September.