COVID-19 Policy Brief: UN Secretary-General warns of education catastrophe

04 August 2020

UN Secretary-General warns of education catastrophe, pointing to UNESCO estimate of 24 million learners at risk of dropping out

UNESCO press release, Paris, 4 August — UN Secretary-General António Guterres today launched the Education in the time of COVID-19 and beyond Policy Brief warning that the pandemic has created the most severe disruption in the world’s education systems in history and is threatening a loss of learning that may stretch beyond one generation of students. School closures are also likely to erase decades of progress, according to the Policy Brief, which builds on UNESCO’s data and features recommendations on ways to avert the looming catastrophe.

UNESCO led the drafting of the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief which contains inputs from 15 sister organizations.

“We already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a video statement to launch the Policy Brief. “Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.”

The Brief calls for national authorities and the international community to come together to place education at the forefront of recovery agendas and protect investment in education. With this objective, UNESCO will convene a special session of the Global Education Meeting before the end of the year.  

UNESCO data shows that nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries, 94% of the world’s student population, were affected by the closure of educational institutions at the peak of the crisis, a figure that stands at 1 billion today. As many as 100 countries have yet to announce a date for schools to reopen.

The Policy Brief points to UNESCO’s projections whereby 24 million learners from pre-primary to tertiary education risk not finding their way back to their studies in 2020 following the COVID-19-induced closures. The largest share of learners at risk, 5.9 million, live in South and West Asia. Another 5.3 million students at risk are in sub-Saharan Africa. Both regions faced severe educational challenges even before the pandemic, which is likely to worsen their situation considerably. 

According to UNESCO, tertiary education is likely to experience the highest dropout rate and a projected 3.5% decline in enrolment, resulting in 7.9 million fewer students. Pre-primary education is the second worst affected level with a projected 2.8% decline in enrolment, i.e. 5 million fewer children attending. According to these projections, 0.27% of primary and 1.48% of secondary education students, corresponding to 5.2 million girls and 5.7 million boys at both levels, risk dropping out of school.

“These findings emphasize the urgent need to ensure the continuity of learning for all in the face of this unprecedented crisis, in particular the most vulnerable,” says UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  “The Brief calls to protect investment in education at all levels, and warns that according to UNESCO estimates, the pandemic will increase the gap in funding needed to reach the internationally agreed 2030 Sustainable Development Goal on Education (SDG4) in low and lower-middle income countries by one third, from the already staggering shortfall of USD 148 billion.”

School closures do not only undermine education. They also hamper the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to a balanced diet and parents’ ability to go to work. They also increase risks of violence against women and girls.

Preventing the learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe must become a top priority for world leaders and for stakeholders across the education community, says the brief, emphasizing education’s role in driving economic progress, sustainable development and lasting peace.

The Brief makes recommendations in four areas to mitigate the effects of the pandemic:

  1. Suppress transmission of the virus and plan thoroughly for school reopening: this covers health and safety measures, attention to the needs of marginalized children and joint planning and consultation with teachers, parents and communities The UN has issued guidance to help governments in this complex endeavour.
  2. Protect education financing and coordinate for impact: despite public spending constraints, national authorities must protect education budgets and include education in COVID stimulus packages. The international community must protect official development assistance for education. Relieving, postponing and restructuring debt for low and lower-middle income countries is part of the solution to help countries invest in education.
  3. Strengthen the resilience of education systems for equitable and sustainable development: Building back resilience requires a priority focus on equity and inclusion, with measures to address the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable learners and to ensure that economic strains and gender norms do not prevent girls from returning to school. Risk management capacities need to be reinforced at all levels.
  4. Reimagine education and accelerate positive change in teaching and learning: The scale of innovations made in a short time to ensure learning continuity proves that change can happen quickly. They have set the ground to reimagine education and build systems that are more forward-looking, inclusive, flexible and resilient. Solutions must address learning losses, preventing dropouts, particularly of the most marginalized, and ensuring the social and emotional welfare of students, teachers and staff. Other priorities include better support to the teaching profession, removing barriers to connectivity, investing in digital technologies and flexible learning pathways.


The UN Policy Brief is being launched alongside #SaveOurFuture, a multi-partner campaign led by ten entities, including UNESCO, to raise awareness of the global education emergency and urge increased investment to build better, more inclusive and resilient education systems for the future.