By Jordan Naidoo, Director, Education for All and International Education Coordination, UNESCO


The Millennium Development Goals have paved the way to a new vision for global sustainable development. The implications for education are vast and well-worth the effort.

Two thousand and fifteen was a landmark year for international development with the adoption of Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets demonstrate the scale and ambition of a new universal agenda. 

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon hailed the 2030 Agenda as a “universal, transformative and integrated agenda that heralds a historic turning point for our world". The SDGs are expected to shape national government priorities, policies and financing decisions in areas from education to environment, housing to health, climate change to care and work. The adoption of the SDGs are particularly momentous for education. 2015 was the endpoint of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its Goal 2 on education, but also for the Education for All (EFA) Goals first mooted in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990 and reaffirmed in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. 

SDG 4: Quality education 

The new education agenda encapsulated in Goal 4 - ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ - is holistic, ambitious, aspirational and universal, and inspired by a vision of education that transforms the lives of individuals, communities and societies. The agenda attends to the unfinished business of the EFA goals and the education-related MDGs, while effectively addressing current and future global and national education challenges. 

When it comes to Goal 4, the Transforming our World document proposes a supremely ambitious and transformational vision; one that sees a world with universal literacy and with equitable and universal access to quality education. It commits unequivocally to this at all levels — early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training. All people, irrespective of sex, age, race or ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to lifelong learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and participate fully in society

Too ambitious? 

Like the overall SDG agenda, SDG 4 and Education 2030 have received mixed reactions, especially with regard to their increased scope and level of ambition. The Global Education Monitoring Report is scathing in its criticism describing the education targets as unrealistic, overambitious or too costly in its February 2015 policy paper, Where do the proposed education targets fall short? 

Expanding the focus beyond primary education to include universal secondary education, TVET and higher education have received some of the severest criticism. Critics insist that ensuring universal upper secondary education in the next 15 years is beyond the reach of most countries and that even universal lower secondary completion is not projected to be reached in low- and middle-income countries until the latter half of the 21st Century. Most NGOs and civil society groups, however, categorically support “twelve years of free, publicly-funded formal quality education for all by 2030, nine of which should be compulsory".

Matching education and labour market needs 

The reality lies somewhere between these two positions. The SDG agenda relative to secondary education may be too ambitious and beyond the reach of many countries. On the other hand, effective, evidence-based policies on post-primary education are of vital importance as many developing countries are starting to see a bulge in secondary and post-secondary enrolment – the product of the achievement of near-universal access to primary school. Globally, participation in upper secondary education is also on the rise with gross enrolment at 63 per cent in 2013 compared to 45 per cent in 1999, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

With higher levels of skills being demanded in the labour market, greater priority should be given to the transition from primary to lower and upper secondary education. Addressing this challenge is bound to be complex and somewhat daunting. Besides requiring substantially greater finances and resources, as well as very large numbers of teachers capable of teaching at advanced levels, countries will need to deal with the quality of teaching and learning, relevant pedagogy, the curriculum design, and so on. Meeting these challenges will require a combination of using existing resources more effectively – that requires both understanding which inputs are key, and which are not—and a range of innovations that may fundamentally alter the current methods of instruction. 

Finding ways to deliver and promote access to high-quality post-primary education, and to ensure that education is relevant to labour market needs, is a challenge we must address. The benefits outweigh the costs.


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