Welcome to the fourth part of our Brave New World series, where we explore the impacts of Covid-19 on each of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. SDG4 assesses global education at all ages, and it’s something that has been drastically affected by the coronavirus, with potentially hundreds of millions of students either moving to online study or being cut off temporarily from an education.
To provide a little more scope, allow us to quote sub-goal 4.4, which aspires: ‘by 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship’.
Where do we begin?
Let’s start by looking at what some of the typically-agreed upon requirements are for a ‘quality education’.
Starting early – Children who join the education system younger are more likely to embrace key skills and disciplines. In more developed countries, children may join a kindergarten at two or three years old and after several years will start elementary school at five or six years old. In the poorest countries, some children’s first experience of an educational setting is at six or seven years old – this has to change.
Training teachers – This is down to governments providing the budgets for state schools to properly train and resource their teachers so that they can deliver the best education possible. In an economic downturn, this is going to become increasingly more difficult, and already around 7-10% of the world’s schools do not have teachers who meet their national standard.
Focus on learning – Far too many schools are not teaching the basic skills like language, maths, IT, and science, and instead, too much schooling time is spent on religion and playtime.
Leave no girl behind – We will be exploring this further in SDG5, but for now, we can say that investing in girls creates a beneficial domino effect on families, communities, and the economy. By hiring female teachers, female education retention rates improve in lesser economically developed regions.
Make education inclusive – Many schools around the world feel that they don’t have the skills and resources to care for disabled children or those with learning difficulties, but by training staff better and adjusting budgets, those children can get access to a quality education too.
Good data and tracking – The digital world can help schools to see the progress of their students, their attendance, their test results, their overall performance levels. Without this data, it’s hard for students and teachers to see what the benefit of their education is.
When we consider that COVID has impacted 1.6 billion young learners around the globe, we could pessimistically look at the situation and say ‘well, this is too many children, in too many countries, all at one time. We couldn’t possibly help them in this volatile time’. We could look at it that way, but that wouldn’t help, it wouldn’t support progress, and it would stifle millions of opportunities and skills development for the next generation, so, the better way to look at it is this – ‘The schools are closed or are partially closed, there are 190 governments and education boards who have had 6 months rather than 6 weeks to adjust their strategy, and with 94-99% of the world’s young learners eager to get back to a schooling environment, perhaps the obstacles here are in fact the best drivers of educational change.’ Maybe, just maybe, in the brave new world, schools won’t their students for granted, and students won’t take their education for granted either, so after being denied this function for half a year, the gratitude and commitment will be able to increase.
What about higher education?
Having spoken firstly about children, now let’s look more at higher education, such as college and university level.
Miss Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education stated that “Our first estimates find that 20 million students are at risk of not returning to school. Without the right policy choices backed up by resources, the learning crisis will deepen with cascading repercussions across all the development goals.” This figure of 20 million is very concerning, especially as the estimate for the total number of students in global higher education is just over 200 million. This would suggest that 1 in 10 students will not be returning to their studies because of the social effects of the coronavirus.
Governments have been working tirelessly to support their people, to protect their economies, and to enact some damage limitation measures. However, within each of those support mechanisms, there are people who are left behind and who fall through the net. In the case of higher education, it’s those 20 million, who for varying reasons, can’t justify or manage to continue their education in a COVID world.
For more than half a year, students around the globe are paying full tuition fees for a limited experience, simply tuning in to Zoom sessions and downloading coursework tasks from online education platforms. Many students in the UK can’t justify £9,000 a year to watch webinars with their classmates, and the government has offered no help or support to them, creating a situation that will lead to more problems down the line.
Many institutions around the world were already beginning to implement blended learning, creating a mixture of classroom, online, and interactive materials, but not all had gotten to that point yet. Many institutions left their learners in a position where they had no access to guidance or support, no access to textbooks, and no access to high-speed internet. The single-delivery system of education collapsed temporarily and left far too many people in the lurch, and whilst this is a short-term disaster, it does give clarity about how the education system needs to adapt itself to the brave new world.
To learn more about the UN’s international response to education during and after the coronavirus, this document is a high-quality resource.
What about the entrepreneurs?
Education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university. People who start businesses and drive their country and economy forward are also in a position where they need to learn new skills – very few people know how to start and manage a successful business without any education. To survive in the new economy, where many of the things we took as norms are now gone or broken, people who have to get very creative, become more resourceful and learn key skills that will help them find sustainability. We expect to see millions and millions of people bootstrapping their own businesses from their homes and their computers.
Entrepreneurs and businessfolk don’t want to get left behind in the brave new world, and it’s also imperative that their education continues in order to help the economy bounce back from a nasty looming recession. Government programmes that get people learning and studying new skills will help to counteract unemployment, but they will only work if financial barriers are removed or lowered and more learning goes online.
SDG4 may be one of the goals that benefit most in the long term, as it has given educators and governments a chance to gain new perspectives about what it means to learn.