By Wachira Kigotho
Unequal access to university education is likely to persist in most countries globally despite concerted attempts to expand opportunities by 2030, according to a UNESCO Position Paper on Education Post-2015.
It warns that the problem will not be limited to scarcity of places: there will also be a knowledge divide caused by lack of chances to acquire skills in technology.
Notably, considerable disparities will be experienced in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the total number of entrants to education declines steeply as students move from primary to higher levels of education, in comparison to other regions of the world.
The crux of the matter, says the position paper, is that the quality of schooling in many countries has continued to suffer from limited learning resources, teacher shortages, teacher absenteeism, and distance and safety to travel to and from school.
Such factors result in high drop-out rates, especially among girls.
In the face of growing concern about increasing global social inequity, unequal participation in development and social unrest, UNESCO says more attention should be paid to the central role of education in promoting peace and social cohesion.
“Education is a right that transforms lives when it is accessible to all, relevant and underpinned by core shared values,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.
“Because quality education is the most influential force for alleviating poverty, improving health and livelihoods, increasing prosperity and shaping more inclusive, sustainable and peaceful societies, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that it is at the centre of the post-2015 development agenda.”
Post-2015 educational imperatives
UNESCO identifies six educational imperatives for the post-2015 development agenda:
- Equitable access to quality education for children, youth and adults should be provided for all, from early childhood to higher education.
- Quality education and learning at all levels and in all settings should be at the core of the post-2015 education agenda.
- A focus on equity is paramount and particular attention should be given to marginalised groups.
- Gender equality requires continued and central attention.
- Opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills for sustainable development, global citizenship and the world of work must be enhanced.
- Lifelong learning is a central principle of the post-2015 education agenda. Flexible lifelong and life-wide learning opportunities should be provided through formal, non-formal and informal pathways, including by harnessing the potential of ICTs to create a new culture of learning.
Taking into account that higher education in the past has not always delivered better working skills, especially in developing countries, the underlying challenge for the post-2015 education agenda is to increase relevant skills and lifelong learning opportunities.
UNESCO is urging countries to expand their tertiary education systems in order to allow the most qualified students to access studies leading to university diplomas and degrees – and to improve quality so that students succeed once they have accessed high-level education.
“An increase in access to and attainment of quality tertiary education is central to ensuring better living conditions and getting access to specialised and better-paid jobs,” says the UN agency.
A skills mismatch, joblessness
Such sentiments were also expressed in an OECD study conducted with the Ford Foundation. According to their report, All on Board: Making inclusive growth happen, a skills mismatch is now a serious problem in most developing countries.
“The issue is of great worry in that joblessness is more widespread in developing countries among the highly educated than among individuals with primary levels of education or less,” said Angel Gurria, OECD secretary general, in a report released last week.
Describing the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, the report noted that a significantly high number of tertiary graduates have careers in the social sciences, humanities or law, rather than in technology or science-related disciplines.
“Recruitment work agencies in these countries report scarcity of tertiary level graduates qualified for technical fields, such as the extractive industries, logistics, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, manufacturing and agribusiness,” the report notes.
An emerging scenario in many countries is that a tertiary degree is not guaranteeing a job, as a result of poor student choices or mismatches between skills and what job markets need.
“Quite often, although skills are a powerful determinant of employability, there is a mismatch between the qualifications of workers and the demands of employers, which implies a waste of human capital,” said Gurria.
According to the OECD report, the global distribution of university education-acquired skills among the adult population post-2015 and beyond will continue to be largely determined by socio-economic background and status.
Disparities in access and gender
“Disparities in access to higher education persist regionally within countries, driven by factors such as wealth, location and gender,” says UNESCO.
For instance, in Latin America more than 70% of children whose parents are tertiary educated also complete tertiary studies, but only 3.1% of children with parents who did not complete primary school attain this level of education.
There are various barriers to higher education, including for young people living in rural areas. UNESCO predicts that in the post-2015 period and beyond, access to higher education in developing countries will become harder for young people in urban slums.
Interestingly, whereas female enrolment at tertiary level has grown almost twice as fast as that of men over the last four decades in most countries as a result of social mobility, enhanced income potential and international pressure to narrow the gender gap, there are indications that gender equality will require continued central attention in the post-2015 era.
According to Edward Fiske, principal author of UNESCO’s World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education, a group of developing countries – including Afghanistan, Chad, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Tajikistan – have university enrolments heavily skewed in favour of men.
In contrast, a range of small island states in the Pacific including Anguilla, Antigua, Belize, Bermuda, Dominica, Jamaica and St Lucia, have more women than men in their higher education systems. Other countries in this category are Iceland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Significant differences are expected to persist post-2015 in the extent to which men and women pursue education at various levels.
Developing and implementing a post-2015 agenda
UNESCO is urging countries to develop a global post-2015 education agenda based on lessons learned from the Education for All initiative and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
“However such approaches should be embedded in national educational plans in order to strike a balance between the globally-comparable and measurable targets and their national adaptability,” says UNESCO.
According to the position paper, in their efforts to implement proposed post-2015 education development goals, governments are being encouraged to provide free and compulsory basic education as well as improve access to higher levels of learning.
They are also being encouraged to strengthen participatory governance and accountability mechanisms, and improve planning and monitoring processes at all levels of education.
“In addition, strong partnerships are required in order to contribute to the common goal of education for all and ensuring everyone’s right to education is fulfilled,” says UNESCO.
In Sub-Saharan African and other developing countries, governments will be required to establish a broad coalition of partners including stakeholders from international donor groups and charities, civil society, academia and the private sector.
“Even then, monitoring and accountability mechanisms for the post-2015 education agenda should be country-driven while UNESCO will provide institutional capacities in developing countries,” said Bokova in a statement.
UNESCO is in the process of ensuring that the future education agenda is fully reflected and anchored within the overall framework of the global post-2015 development agenda.
On the delivery of relevant higher education skills, UNESCO affirms that it will continue to encourage the use of technology for online and distance learning. Tertiary education systems are being urged to establish appropriate, high quality massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
UNESCO expects the post-2015 education agenda to be clearly defined, balanced and holistic, with a lifelong learning approach.
A strong common strand running through UNESCO’s post-2015 education policy paper is that investing in relevant higher education and skills will pay long-term dividends for economies and enhance the abilities of individuals to be competitive in the job market.