This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.
Goal #4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
“A collective sigh of relief was heard from the international education community when the sustainable development goals (SDGs) proposed … in July 2014 included a stand-alone goal on education”. So said the UN Chronicle, reflecting on the struggle to place education as a human right and an enabler of sustainable development. A separate SDG on education assures its importance amidst competing development demands.
SDG #4 commits governments to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. The specific targets under this overarching goal reflect decades-long developments in education communities. Education has demonstrated its potential to generate better livelihoods, improve health, reduce gender disparities, and stimulate innovations in all spheres of life (including ways to help protect the environment and reduce our consumption of natural resources).
The Education for All movement and the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development provided opportunities for UN Member States and stakeholders to design, test, and scale-up actions towards an overall transformation of educational systems. They also provided complementary strategies to address challenges related to sustainable development.
Current initiatives like Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Environmental Education, and more recently Global Citizenship Education aim to empower all learners to address the social, economic, and environmental issues that we face. ESD, in particular, is about developing learners’ ability to deal with complex challenges and possible trade-offs: to forge partnerships, appreciate alternative perspectives, and formulate solutions.
In the present job market, “soft” or “competency-based” qualities are typically overlooked in recruitment processes. Employers simply assume that those who master their areas of study will also excel in developing solutions to complex situations. If we are to achieve the SDGs, this must change.
SDG #4 addresses not only access to education but also the expected outcomes. It explicitly aims for education that is accessible to all people, everywhere, at any time in their lives. It applies broadly to both the quality of the learning outcomes and the ability of educational systems to deliver the process in “inclusive and equitable” ways. It anticipates that educational institutions and educators will implement approaches that empower learners to become agents of change towards sustainable development.
SDG #4 is ambitious in aiming to meet the demands and aspirations of all learners. We should keep in mind, however, that this is contextualised by the other SDGs that jointly map out a “road to dignity by 2030”. Collectively, the SDGs cover both the drivers of sustainable development (green economy, industrialisation and innovation) as well as the mitigation of current challenges (climate change, poverty and malnutrition, loss of biodiversity), thus determining what education needs to deliver.
To better link SDG #4 to sustainable development, we must think about how to align learning outcomes and skills to sustainable development, how to link requirements for scholarships for developing and least developed countries to sustainable development and green economy, and how to refer to the need for sustainable development while increasing the training of qualified teachers for developing countries.
In societies where basic services are not provided or where people are indifferent to environmental and social problems, learning communities often mobilise stakeholders from below to awaken institutions to act. Education, in other words, becomes a leading force in challenging and eventually changing prevalent processes. But this only happens if learning resonates with the realities of people, their histories, culture, social relations, and the economic conditions in which they live.
One example of this is the global movement of Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (RCEs), established in 2005. RCEs operate as regional partnerships to bring together the formal and/or informal education sectors with government, businesses, and civil society. The aim is to develop practical solutions towards local sustainability challenges, and empower individuals and organizations to implement them (individually and in partnerships). Their shared commitment to change, and to the history of collective engagements through learning and research projects as well as through contributions to regional and global policy processes, demonstrate how locally integrated learning systems contribute towards sustainable development.
It is clear that in today’s complex and fast fast-moving world, education is no longer a one-directional process. Individuals and communities must co-engage with each other and with outside knowledge holders in addressing pressing issues.
Experiences from initiatives like ESD tell us that education guides change. When seeking solutions to societal problems, we need to reflect on the history of the issue at hand, not only through scientific and pragmatic approaches but also by assessing the consequences of these solutions (rather than blindly following recommendations of so-called authorities). Engaging people, sectors, and communities in sustainability-related work is more productive if done through enquiry-led change rather than relying solely on (outside) advice. Conscious learning, knowledge acquisition, and co-creation are vital.
In short, education is not confined by SDG #4, but is a key element in advancing each of the 17 sustainable development goals.
Change Through Learning by Zinaida Fadeeva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.