When the UN set eight Millennium Development Goals for the world to reach by 2015, one was universal primary education. The British Council's Director Education and Society, Jo Beall, argues that the UN must look beyond just primary education, and include higher education in its revised plans.
There is a global crisis in education, and it affects everyone. If the post-2015 development agenda is to address it, it needs to encompass an understanding of education as a continuum, from primary through to higher education. This year's United Nations General Assembly meeting, which had the theme 'The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage', set out the next steps towards a post-2015 agenda.
We must do all we can to include education in the next set of development goals.
Why we need to look beyond just primary education
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are generally seen as unfinished business. The second MDG – to ‘achieve universal primary education’ – was a worthy target, but unlikely to be met. The focus on enrolment in primary education was a necessary, but not sufficient step towards more educated and less poor societies.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals Report in 2013 found that the early school leaving rate remains at 25 per cent, the same level as in 2000. Out of 137 million children who entered first grade in 2011, 34 million are likely to leave before finishing primary school.
If we want to build effective primary education systems, reduce poverty and develop knowledge economies that support sustainable development, we clearly need a rethink. We need a wider focus on education: We need to see it as a series of connected phases, from primary through secondary to higher levels of learning.
The original MDG did not pay attention to the complex relationship between education and prosperity. Nor did it acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between education and engaged citizens. Secondary and tertiary education provide the skills that people need to contribute to their economies. Research by the World Bank and others has shown that they also build digital skills, intercultural skills (such as tolerance and communication) and increase political participation.
If the post-2015 agenda is truly looking at ways to tackle common challenges across developed and developing countries, it must look at education as one continuum, from primary through to higher education.
Higher education creates wealthier, more open societies
Higher education is fundamental to long-term development, and the UK has a critical edge as a world leader. The country’s universities and research institutions enjoy an exceptional reputation for quality and innovation.
Few sectors of the UK economy can contribute to economic development as significantly as higher education, but its benefits extend beyond monetary value. Research conducted by the British Council shows that education plays a crucial role in building trust between nations. By developing employable, globally engaged citizens, higher education benefits young people not only in the developing world or in emerging economies, but also in the UK.
The UN's High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP), which was set up to discuss the post-2015 agenda, was co-chaired by David Cameron, giving the UK a prominent role in the post-MDG debate. This position of influence must be used to champion an approach to education 'in the round'. David Cameron has spoken of a ‘golden thread’ weaving together education and prosperity, an open society and strong institutions. Primary education alone cannot achieve this. Higher education is a critical element, if we don't want to break this golden thread of development.
What happens after the 2015 deadline?
The HLP has proposed that the UN's post-2015 agenda should go beyond the original goals. It recommends five transformational shifts to get rid of poverty and create sustainable development. Among these are the setting up of open and accountable institutions, the transformation of economies to boost jobs and include everyone in economic growth, and the forging of new partnerships between countries.
As the UN sets the stage for a post-2015 agenda, it is essential that education is viewed as a continuum and tackled in the round. Including higher education in a post-MDG plan will help developed and developing countries alike. Emerging economies are investing in higher education precisely because they recognise the link with economic development and prosperity. Higher education has a key role in achieving a world of post-aid development where the playing fields are level and the players share responsibility. If we miss this chance, we will fail to eliminate extreme poverty through education, and lose the opportunity to make the world a safer and more prosperous place..