Globe to Miss Goal for Universal Education by 50 Years

Researchers fear that without access to education, the world will fall behind in other goals, like ending poverty and hunger.
Students reading at a school in Niamey, Niger. (Photo: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images)
Sep 7, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

More than 260 million children are out of school around the world, and a new report shows that initiatives to put kids in classrooms are falling short of global goals.

International leaders at last year’s United Nations Sustainable Development Summit listed 2030 as the bright line for universal enrollment in K–12. The Global Education Monitoring Report released on Tuesday by UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational body, shows that we’re still nearly 70 years away from achieving worldwide enrollment in both primary and secondary school.

Not only is access to education considered a basic human right, but the report calls schooling the “core” to achieving all 16 of the remaining sustainable development goals, including ending poverty, improving health, and working to combat climate change.

Researchers estimate that if 5 percent more men graduated from high school in the U.S., it would add $20 billion to the nation’s economy. If all girls in sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in school by 2030, researchers believe it could prevent 3.5 million child deaths between 2050 and 2060. Higher levels of schooling are associated with increased environmental awareness, which results in a higher likelihood of taking action against climate change, from signing a petition to participating in protests.

Based on current rates, we will not reach universal enrollment in primary school until 2042, lower secondary school in 2059, and upper secondary school in 2084, the report found. The report called out gross underfunding as a primary cause for failing to put kids in school. To meet the 2030 goal, financial aid for education will need to increase sixfold.

“This report should set off alarm bells around the world and lead to a historic scale-up of actions,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, special adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General, wrote in the report’s foreword.

Students living in conflict-ridden countries were most likely to be out of school. Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has pushed more children out of the classroom, with 35 percent of out-of-school primary-age children living in conflict-affected regions, including Niger and Chad, as well as Afghanistan. The Syrian conflict has brought about a stark drop in school enrollment. In 2001, the Middle Eastern nation had achieved universal enrollment in primary school, but those figures started to slip as violence escalated, down to about 70 percent in 2013.

Increased levels of conflict have exacerbated an already stark education gap between rich and poor children. Nearly 30 percent of children from the poorest families in low-income countries have never attended formal school, compared with just 3 percent of children living in upper-middle-income countries, according to the UNESCO report. Only a dozen countries—such as Japan, Canada, Poland, and Slovakia—are on track to meet the goal of total enrollment in all 12 grades by 2030. The U.S. won’t reach that goal until 2040.

“Education is key to helping people around the world understand why sustainable development is such a vital concept for our common future,” wrote Sachs, who is also an economist and the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Education gives us the key tools—economic, social, technological, even ethical—to take on the [sustainable development goals] and to achieve them.”