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Strengthening Public Responsibility for Education and Lifelong learning

By Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO

Didier_Plowy_-_Audrey_Azoulay_(cropped)For the first time, G20 education ministers will meet this September to agree on strategies that aim ‘to unleash people’s potential for the future of work’ as per the aim of the Argentine presidency of the group.

This marks a recognition that education is a cornerstone of development, fairness and sustainability, goals at the heart of the G20’s vision this year.

Such a recognition must translate into robust policies, combined with financial commitments, to ensure that children, youth and adults are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to shape a more inclusive model of growth and development.

The evidence is unequivocal: education is a major determining factor of economic growth, employment and earnings; it is key to helping individuals escape poverty and one of the most powerful ways to improve people’s health. Girls and women’s education, in particular, has unmatched transformative power.

All societies are undergoing change at a vertiginous rate, led by the ongoing revolution in technology that is disrupting previous models whilst opening up tremendous opportunities to expand learning, and to learn differently and better. The mismatch between skills and labour markets is coming to the forefront of political agendas. There is a recognition of the need for education and training systems that can better assess and anticipate changing skills needs, and offer more flexible learning pathways.

The stakes are high: at a time when knowledge is the frontier of wealth, 263 million children, adolescents and youth worldwide are out of school and 617 million are not achieving minimum proficiency skills in reading and mathematics. Among the latter, 47% – or 287 million – reside in G20 countries, according to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

The first imperative is to address these inequalities that are jeopardizing the life chances of millions of young people. The future of work must be built upon strong foundations, starting in the earliest years, to address inequalities at their root, before they start to amplify due to poverty, discriminatory practices and other barriers. The economies of the future cannot be dissociated from the education systems of the present. Are education systems adequately preparing learners to deal with uncertainty and rapid change, for jobs that do not yet exist, for the transition to green economies and the digital age?

The transformations at work in society, coined as a “fourth industrial revolution”, require reorienting education systems around new competences, new skills and new ways of teaching. This vision is captured in the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on education that places the focus on equity, quality and inclusion at all levels, through a lifelong learning perspective. This is not a numbers game but one that values learning achievement and the acquisition of digital skills that are critical to all sectors of the economy. It also demonstrates the motivation to act as responsible global citizens, to find innovative solutions that will improve human well-being, strengthen peace and protect our planet and its finite resources. Critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, problem-solving skills and entrepreneurial capabilities – these are increasingly the skills we need to foster. They are also pre-requisites for increased social and economic inclusion. Respected, well-trained and motivated teachers have the most powerful influence on learning – they must be empowered to lead change in their classrooms. Clearly, technology must be an ally in this process, to expand opportunities for the most marginalized, and to enrich the teaching and learning process.

UNESCO is acting across all these dimensions to encourage more holistic, relevant and inclusive education systems that are geared to 21st century challenges. We have been at the forefront of advancing the understanding and practice of education for global citizenship, sustainable development and the prevention of violent extremism. As the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating Sustainable Development Goal 4, we are piloting a strategic and collaborative approach to steer progress, to promote deeper knowledge sharing of policies and practices across countries, and to advocate for a focus on education and skills at the highest political levels.

Representing the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies and two-thirds of the world’s population, the G20 countries hold the reins of future global prosperity and peace.

The common challenges they face – in improving educational quality, in anticipating skills, managing diversity, bridging digital divides and encouraging mobility requires reinforced international collaboration. They can bring about stronger synergies between education and labour ministries, between public and private sectors.

Current global inequalities are widening, which will weaken G20 economies and the fabric of their societies. The 2030 Agenda of the United Nations is about leaving no one behind. UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report estimates that low and lower middle incomes face an annual financing gap of USD 39 billion. Even if they increase their domestic revenue raising capacities, public expenditure will be insufficient to bring the transformational change required to achieve the ambitions of the new education agenda. The share of education in total aid fell six years a row from 2009 to 2015, while the share of aid to basic education in sub-Saharan Africa – which hosts over half of the world’s out of school children – fell by half.

To face this challenge, we need a surge in global solidarity. By championing increased public aid to education and innovative financing tools that work together to maximize learning opportunities, the G20 would send a clear message of collective responsibility for education as a global public good and a human right. Education has found its rightful place on the G20 agenda – this must be reflected in the Summit outcomes and remain a priority for future presidencies.

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