Education is the Measure and Premise of Progress

  • 2015•09•12

    Diego Salama

    The Global Goals

    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

    Fifteen years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which sought to eradicate or alleviate the world’s most pressing challenges. The eight MDG objectives showed a renewed ambition to lift billions out of poverty – and a renewed confidence in the UN system itself.

    The date set for compliance was 2015, and data shows that UN Member States have made real progress. Indeed, the achievements of the developing world, particularly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are quite positive. Yet we are far from being able to declare “mission accomplished”; there is more work to be done on various fronts, including education.

    This year, as we transition from the MDGs to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN system is going through a deep process of introspection, whereby the results of the last 15 years are being evaluated. It is possible to see the impact of this process already in the text of the SDGs.

    In the case of education, SDG #4 (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”) is far more comprehensive than MDG #2 (“Achieve universal primary education”), as it tackles the issue from a truly multidimensional perspective.

    This is a considerable enhancement, which emphasises that education is a never-ending process to which people of all ages and backgrounds should have access — especially those in vulnerable situations. Within SDG #4, four main themes are addressed, and all face particular (yet interdependent) challenges.

    First, the new goal picks up and continues the targets of its predecessor, because we have failed to achieve universal primary education. Although much of the world has increased enrolment rates, there is still vast room for improvement.

    One of the biggest challenges is the fact that education is not sufficiently inclusive. Even if all Member States raise the quality of their educational systems, development relies on schools allowing full integration in civil society and the productive system. Put simply, a child who has had access to primary and secondary education has a much better chance to live a life above the poverty level. This is particularly important for girls.

    Second, gender equality in education has not been fully achieved across the developing world. At every level (local, municipal, and national) there are structural barriers that prevent girls from gaining access to education – despite the clear fact that it is absolutely impossible to achieve the SDGs without ensuring women’s rights.

    Third, there are two sub-goals that aim to increase enrolments in higher education, and in information and communications technologies, engineering, and science training. For these sub-goals to be achieved, there will need to be a dual approach: ensuring that more young scholars from emerging economies join programmes in the developed world, while at the same time improving education systems across the Global South.

    For many years, these have been among the core goals of UNU-MERIT: to draw students and researchers from the developing world on to our programmes (such as our PhD programmes) while, at the same time, engaging with them in their own societies (such as through our DEIP workshops).

    Fourth, SDG #4 confirms that vocational training must play a starting role in the UN’s education objective. Given the new realities of the global economy, Member States need to implement policies that strength vocational training in order to qualify people for the jobs of the 21st century.

    The UN, through its educational agencies (including UNESCO and UNU), has been designing a series of policies that stress the importance of vocational training. The SDGs must embrace efforts already made both at the national and international levels, and continue to fight the perception that vocational education is less important than other traditional forms of learning.


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    Education is the Measure and Premise of Progress by Diego Salama is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.