Spotlight Series: SDG 4 – Quality Education


The mission statement on the back of my UWC shirt reads “UWC makes education as force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”. And it seems that both the UWC movement and the UN assign education a large importance: with SDG 4, the UN wants to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning by 2030.

Why does education matter so much? Simply put: it is the key that will allow many of the other SDGs to be achieved. Education has the power to not only empower people to live more healthily and sustainably, it also reduces (gender) inequalities, helps citizens break free from the poverty cycle (data from 114 countries between 1985 and 2005 suggests that adding one extra year of education reduces the Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality – by a total 1.4 points[1]), and is considered crucial in fostering peace and tolerance.

UNESCO lists five of the other goals as directly related to education: health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), and climate change mitigation (SDG 13)[2]. Particularly education for sustainable development (ESD) is deemed important in the context of sustainability[3]: “With its overall aim to develop cross-cutting sustainability competencies in learners, ESD is an essential contribution to all efforts to achieve the SDGs, enabling individuals to contribute to sustainable development by promoting societal, economic and political change as well as by transforming their own behaviour.”

Believing in education as a power for change and improvement is not a novel idea. In fact, it was already a goal in the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. MDG 2 reads “Achieve primary education by 2015.” For the SDGs, the goal of achieving universal education was expanded and its focus shifted: additional to pursuing the unfinished agenda from the MDGs of providing access to universal primary education, equal opportunity in access to quality learning opportunities at all levels of education in a lifelong perspective is to be ensured. Instead of only aiming for access to and the completion of primary education for all, the UN now strives to provide access to quality basic education for all, equitable access to post-basic education, and emphasizes the relevance of learning for both work and global citizenship. Furthermore, MDG 2 was mostly focused on low-income countries and conflict-affected regions but SDG 4 sets a universal agenda[4].

Specific sub-targets of SDG 4 include the access to early childhood development, care and pre-primary education; the equal access for women and men to technical / vocational / tertiary education; a substantial increase in the number of youth / adults with relevant skills; having all youth achieve literacy and numeracy; providing appropriate education facilities; increasing the availability of scholarships; and ensuring a sufficient supply of qualified teachers.

Particularly interesting in the context of this Short Course is target 4.7: “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non- violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development” – now doesn’t that just sound like it is a paraphrased version of the Short Course description?

Thanks to education initiatives like this Short Course and of course (probably more importantly) many, many tirelessly-working non-governmental as well as governmental organizations, tremendous progress has been made in achieving the target of universal primary education[5]: most notably, the total enrolment rate for primary education in developing countries has reached 91 percent and the worldwide number of children out of school has dropped by almost half. Literacy rates have surged up and more girls are in school than ever before.

But still, 57 million children – of which an estimated 50% live in conflict-affected areas – remain out of school. 103 million youth worldwide lack basic literacy skills and more than 60% of them are women. The economic background of children is still shockingly influential on their education as children from the poorest households are up to four times more likely to be out of school than those of the richest households. Disparities between rural and urban areas also remain high. A third of all countries in developing regions have not achieved gender parity in primary education alone as girls still face many barriers to entering basic education. And even more developed nations still struggle vastly with the more advanced goals of providing further education[6].

These facts indicate that bolder efforts need to be made in order to achieve the universal education goals set out by the UN for 2030.

This will require adjustments and strengthening of national legislation which goes hand-in-hand with a sector-wide approach to education policy, planning and coordination. The recognition, validation and accreditation of learning will be essential for the establishment and facilitation of pathways between formal and less formal learning, as well as between education, training and work. Public education budgets will need to be increased, for example through greater fiscal capacity, partnerships with non-state actors, and increased official development assistance. Considering that there is a new emphasis on the universal context of the goal, close coordination and cooperation between states and regions is necessary. Additionally, the review of regionally existing curricula frameworks, pedagogy, assessment frameworks, and teacher training may be necessary[7].

Something that I personally consider worth contemplating is what potential lies in connecting education and digitalization. For example, the recent popularity of MOOCs (massive open online courses)[8] which are a form of open education offered for free through online platforms to open up quality higher education to a wider audience will surely help these MOOCs play a bigger role in the future.


This is part 5/18 of a series on the Sustainable Development Goals.











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