Davos Agenda

The world is failing miserably on access to education. Here's how to change course

School children in Sierra Leone, following the Ebola outbreak, supported by World Vision

Failing to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all Image: UNSPLASH: Annie Spratt

David Edwards
General Secretary, Education International
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • About 263 million children and youth are out of school.
  • Privatization of education is intensifying and funding for public education is being cut, increasing inequality.
  • The world is not on track to achieve the UN goal on education for all.

With less than a decade left on a critical global deadline, here in the early months of 2020, we know that the world is not on track to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

Across the board, the numbers are relentless, the trend consistent. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, approximately 263 million children and youth are out of school, equivalent to about one-quarter of the population of Europe. The total includes 61 million children of primary school age, 60 million of lower secondary school age, and the first ever estimate of those of upper secondary school age at 142 million.

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Missing the target by 88%

At current rates, if we continue to make this same rate of progress then by 2030 that number will have reduced by only 32 million students and we will have missed the target by 88%.

The UN has also reported that almost 69 million teachers need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international pledges on education are to be kept. Again UNESCO, using national definitions, has calculated that 85% of primary school teachers globally were trained in 2017, a decline of 1.5% since 2013. The rate is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, where the pupil/trained teacher ratio is 60:1.

A survey among Education International’s 400 member organizations in 172 countries in mid-2019 provided a teaching perspective on the issue; that too few governments have taken the necessary steps to implement Goal 4 and some have implemented policies that are actively undermining it. Among the factors cited by our organizations are under-investment and increasing privatization in public systems, and poor employment and working conditions for teachers and education support personnel, including precarious contracts, unsafe work environments, high workloads, and low salaries.

The world is not on track to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 Image: UNESCO

The privatization of education

Privatization of education is intensifying and funding for public education is being cut, accelerating inequality by excluding the vulnerable from accessing quality education. Our report calls on governments directly to ensure a different outcome, to urgently step up investment in free quality education and in the education workforce.

All this takes place in the context of a global wave of nationalism that prompted one observer in a UN-sponsored review of the progress of the SDGs to write: “Across a wide spectrum of countries, protection systems are being weakened rather than reinforced, levels of well-being are falling, and inequalities are rising.”

Inequality in education

On the subject of inequality, Katherine Trebeck of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance writes that “the root cause of so much of this is directly due to how the economy is currently and proactively designed. Our economic system does not sufficiently account for nature, is blind to distribution of resources, and elevates measures of progress that encompass perverse incentives (such as short-term profit and GDP at the expense of human well-being). The system is not broken: it is doing what it was set up to do.”

Corruption exacerbates the problem

Less a wave and more of a steady current is the global level of fraudulent activity stifling the ability of governments to provide a robust and consistent public sector. Citing UN and IMF estimates, Transparency International has revealed that approximately $1.26 trillion are drained from developing countries every year through corruption, bribery, tax evasion and related illicit financial flows, while corruption reduces global tax revenues by $1 trillion annually.

Of course, this hollowing out of the public sector is to the advantage of many private companies and individuals, but it is the antithesis of sustainability.

True leaders act on what they know and what they see. We all know that every sector of the economy has a vital stake in the renewal of education in the public sector, the places in every community in all of our nations, rich and poor around the globe, where students come to learn.

It is critical to understand the growing privatization of education in the full context of the SDGs and the world of 2030 and beyond. Productive economies, like productive lives, require the ability of individuals to adapt, to negotiate complexity, to embrace creativity and entrepreneurship and interact with others as leaders and contributors.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014-2018) wrote that companies need to “step up” to play a critical public role. “Business cannot thrive in failing societies, where tension spikes and communities bristle with grievances and mutual contempt. Strong civil societies, due process, equality and justice: these are what enable real economic empowerment. Corporations need to respond that they make not only dollars, but sense.”

Social cohesion is critical

The social cohesion of educated individuals so critical to sustainable development can never be realized if we allow markets to segregate students, to elevate a caste of payers/winners and leave others to deliberately withered education systems, the shadow of lowered expectation and the certainty of lower opportunity.

The challenge of technology displacement

We know some of the predicted force of technology displacement and, increasingly, artificial intelligence in our workplaces and we can envision severe aftershocks in entire industries and dependent communities. Now is not the time to privatize our ability to prepare and respond.

Now is the time to temper the impulse for velocity with the reason of trajectory; to use what we know and what we can clearly see to invest in and renew vibrant public education systems, with fully trained professional teachers; systems that are fundamental to the equitable, just and productive human-centred society we all want.

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