Ranvir S. Nayar
In a report released on Jan. 24, the International Day of Education, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned of serious setbacks in learning and the number of children in education around the world, most notably in developing countries.
Access to inclusive and equitable quality education is the fourth of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 with the aim of achieving them by 2030. We are therefore now at the half-way mark in the process and last week’s report card on SDG4 was a review of the progress the world has made in the past seven years.
Some of the findings announced by UNESCO were indeed pleasant surprises; for instance, the speed at which some countries have been able to improve their positions in many of the seven benchmarks that form part of the education goal as a whole, whether in terms of the number of children in primary schools or public spending on education.
However, in most of the areas covered by the report the situation is more gloomy, if not alarming. For example, UNESCO said that as many as 41 million children in the South and East Africa region are not in school.
More than just the question of children being out of school, however, perhaps the greater challenge lies in the poor quality of learning within schools, in particular those in developing countries.
Once again, the figures from sub-Saharan Africa are alarming. UNESCO said the region had the lowest rate of reading comprehension in the world, with fewer than 10 percent of 10-year-olds able to read and understand simple texts. Not surprisingly, children in areas where there are protracted conflicts or other crises fare the worst in terms of learning.
The situation is also grim because not all countries could provide data on progress toward achieving the benchmarks. Of those that could, UNESCO warned that only 29 percent were on course to achieve their 2025 targets with high probability in terms of the completion rate for upper secondary education, and 43 percent in terms of the participation rate in organized learning in the year before primary school.
It added that most of the data was provided by wealthier nations, highlighting the fact that the gravity of the situation would be much worse in poorer countries.
While there are multiple reasons for this poor state of affairs, the main issue is money. UNESCO said that one in three countries overall, and two in three among low-income nations, did not spend enough on education. The target set by UNESCO is that countries should devote at least 4 percent of gross domestic product — and 15 percent of total public expenditure — to education.
Inadequate spending inevitably means fewer schools and underfunding of those that are available. This results in underpaid and underqualified teachers, and overcrowded classrooms. Many less wealthy countries also struggle to update curricula regularly. All of these shortcomings seriously undermine the ability of children to reach their potential.
To counter the challenges and help countries, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, UNESCO has called for governments in the region to sharply increase public spending on education. The organization said that consistent underinvestment can be offset if the governments would allocate at least 20 percent of annual national budgets to education. That is a tall order, however, especially for the poorest countries in the region, in which the investment in education can be as low as 3 percent of public spending.
Many of the countries in which investment is low are those affected by prolonged crises or civil wars. Unless there is a semblance of peace, therefore, governments, or rather their leaders, will certainly tend to focus on their own survival rather than the quality or quantity of education the children in their countries receive. They will, therefore, almost certainly continue to allocate much more money to weapons than teaching.
However, there is another, almost certainly even bigger, challenge than the one presented in the UNESCO’s mid-term report, which does not take into account the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education or the benchmarks for SDG4.
There have been countless studies into the severe impact of the global health crisis on education across the board and all around the world. Schools were closed for many months, in some cases up to two years, as a result of which many children suffered in a number ways, including in terms of access to education and the quality of learning.
There are dozens of reports that sound the alarm about the severe effects of the pandemic on education. As a result of prolonged school closures and being forced to remain at home, separated from their friends, for months at a time, millions of children were affected psychologically as well as in terms of the quality of the education they received.
Though many governments touted the possibilities and benefits offered by digital education and e-learning, and organized remote classes online, there was a sharp decline in learning capabilities across the world, in rich and in poor countries alike. It goes without saying that the effects were much more severe in less wealthy nations.
It will be years before the full scale of the pandemic’s impact is measured and known. But one thing is certain: In the next few years we will see a sharp decline in learning capabilities in most of the developing world.
For the world to hope to meet SDG4’s targets by the 2030 deadline, a Herculean effort is now needed, in terms of financial and human resources, if we are to begin to offset the negative effects of COVID-19 on education.
As governments and families continue to struggle in face of high inflation and food and energy crises, however, the key question is whether they will find the time and resources to devote to education.