New UNESCO report shows the world is 50 years late in meeting education targets

edu-difference2Excerpts from UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report 2016:

By calling for universal secondary education, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda entered uncharted territory. It is unknown whether the future trajectory of upper secondary (and higher) education will resemble the historical trajectory of basic education, which has become universal in many countries. Assumptions for secondary education growth are driven more by statistics than by experience.

Not even the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and goal of universal primary completion is likely to be achieved by 2030. The target of universal secondary completion is clearly beyond reach. Under the scenario that past growth rates will continue, 84% of 15- to 19-year-olds in 2030 are projected to complete lower secondary education, and only 69% upper secondary. On these trends, universal lower secondary completion would be achieved in 2059, and universal upper secondary completion only in 2084.

The challenge for low income countries is particularly salient. At past rates, half of 15- to 19-year-olds in 2030 will complete lower secondary education and less than 30% will complete upper secondary. Low income countries, in this scenario, would only achieve the target at the end of the century. Middle income countries would meet the target in the late 2080s.

Thus, achieving universal secondary completion requires an unprecedented and immediate break with past trends. Among world regions, only Europe and Northern America and Caucasus and Central Asia have achieved universal lower secondary completion. They will be very close to universal upper secondary education in 2030 but are not expected to reach it.

The region of Eastern and Southeastern Asia is likely to come close to universal lower secondary completion by 2030, but not achieve universal upper secondary for at least another 30 years. The new projections indicate that three regions will not even achieve universal primary completion by 2030. Northern Africa and Western Asia is expected to come very close, as is Southern Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa will likely lag behind considerably and is expected to have a completion rate of 77% in primary education, 62% in lower secondary and 42% in upper secondary.

How much progress is required? It is useful to look at whether a country would achieve universal secondary completion by 2030 if it expanded at the fastest rate ever observed in its region. For the vast majority of countries, this would still not be sufficient – even for 1 in 10 countries in Europe and Northern America, and for every country in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This scenario shows that the speed in education progress required to meet the SDG target would be unprecedented.

Even disregarding differences in income, institutions, tradition, governance and policy between countries, and the fact that what works in one country may not be successfully replicated elsewhere, analysis shows the ambition of SDG target to be unrealistic.

There are limitations to understanding the complex relationships between education and sustainable development outcomes. In many instances, insufficiencies of data and research mean some relationships cannot be analysed. Standardized cross-country information permits examination only of the effects of educational attainment. Even then, most studies have looked at relationships for particular populations, which cannot necessarily be projected to a global scale.

edu-difference1While educational attainment matters for development, so do education quality and learning outcomes. Yet, widely shared definitions of quality and learning outcomes are lacking, and data coverage across countries and over time is limited. Some research has used learning outcome data from international assessments. But the conclusions so far are tentative and only relevant for a limited set of outcomes, such as economic growth.

If, for example, education helps people live longer, then better education is likely to have an even larger effect on life expectancy. However, there is insufficient evidence to quantify the effect of improved education quality on other outcomes.

The economic effects of education have been among the most widely studied. Of particular interest in connection with the SDGs is the role of education in increasing aggregate economic growth and reducing extreme poverty. Economic growth gains can be enormous in low income countries Improvement in human capital is assumed to have two distinct effects on income per capita. First, it increases labour productivity. Second, it spurs technological development and adoption, which in turn increases the productivity of all factors of production.

Young people who benefit from education expansion in the next 15 years need to enter the labour force in significant numbers before their additional human capital can make an impact. This will occur long after 2030. In middle income countries, the additional growth from achieving universal secondary education by 2030 would likely be small, because many of these countries already have relatively high and increasing levels of participation in secondary education.

In low income countries, though, universalizing upper secondary completion would lead to an increase in per capita income of 75% by 2050. Universal lower secondary completion would account for about half of the gain. However, this again understates the contribution of education expansion, as significant education growth is expected in the baseline trend scenario.

To estimate the impact of increased educational attainment on poverty reduction as achieved through national economic growth, assumptions are necessary on how sensitive poverty rates are to growth rates. While accelerated education expansion can make a sizeable contribution to overall growth, meeting the target might not contribute much to eliminating extreme poverty. In the poorest countries, however, achieving universal secondary education by 2030 could bring poverty elimination forward by 10 years, even if it is insufficient to eliminate extreme poverty altogether by 2030.

There are various links between education and climate change. On the one hand, while the more educated may be more supportive of institutional reforms and interventions aimed at climate change mitigation, educated people tend to have higher incomes and consume more resources, which is likely to increase emissions and global warming. Estimating these relationships using current models is not possible. On the other hand, evidence shows that those with higher education levels are less vulnerable and more resilient to natural disasters.

While comprehensive data on people’s education levels in disaster-prone situations are rare, current information suggests that the more educated tend to exhibit greater awareness of risks, a higher degree of preparation and appropriate responses, and smaller average losses when disaster does strike.

Although it is argued that natural disasters strike indiscriminately, disaster risk reduction assumes that information and preparedness can make a difference to the survival and livelihoods of individuals and communities. Human-induced climate change is likely to increase the frequency, intensity and severity of extreme climate events such as heat waves and heavy precipitation, and cause rising sea levels.

If trends in education continue at the current pace (which will reduce disaster deaths), but the frequency of natural disasters increases by 20%, the number of disaster-related deaths will remain at this high level to mid-century and beyond. If, however, the pace of education expansion quickens, and universal secondary education is achieved by 2030, then by 2040–2050 there will be 10,000 to 20,000 fewer disaster related deaths per decade at constant disaster frequency, and 30,000 to 50,000 fewer deaths in a scenario of increased disaster frequency.

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