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.
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 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, as UNU data shows, 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 declaring ‘mission accomplished’, with 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 is far more comprehensive than MDG 2, 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 from all ages and backgrounds should have access – especially those in vulnerable situations. Within SDG 4 there are four main themes addressed and all have particular, yet interdependent, challenges ahead.
First, the new goal picks up and continues the targets of its predecessor; because we have simply 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 poverty, and 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 caring for women’s rights.
Third, there are two sub-goals that aim to increase enrolments in higher education, ICT, engineering and science training. For these to be achieved, there will need to be a dual approach: ensuring 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 (e.g. our PhD programmes) while, at the same time, engaging with them in their own societies (e.g. our DEIP workshops).
Fourth, the goal 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.
This article will appear shortly on the unu.edu/globalgoals hub site.
UNU SERIES TRAILER