The UN fails students

By Ivy Lewis, Staff Writer

Quality education is typically perceived as both a fundamental right for people and a pivotal resource for societies. Consequently, governments are usually required to ensure access to basic education, and citizens are increasingly becoming legally required to attain an elementary education. Unfortunately, the current strategy proposed and implemented by the UN and grassroots organizations across the world has failed to give the poorest students fair access to quality education.

In 2021, access to education is often not about whether or not a student can enroll in school. Rather, it means that the student can enroll in a school with up-to-date technology, proper materials, supervision and safe standards of sanitation.

Simply enrolling students in poor quality schools does nothing to reduce global inequality. More insidiously, the UN’s standard of success in education only involves accessing total enrollment and graduation rates. It does not acknowledge the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in quality of education.

From 2000 to 2018, the rate of participation in tertiary education — in other words, university and trade school enrollment — doubled from 19% to 38%. Graduation rates, which measure how many people enrolled obtain a degree, have also improved but lag behind enrollment.

The fastest increases in college graduation among those enrolled were observed in Mongolia, Albania and Columbia. Many nations saw increases of up to 30%.

The dramatic shift towards higher education is connected to the UN’s Millennium Development project, which mobilized policy workers to expand access to education. By some measures, such as enrollment, the UN’s goal has been reached.

However, by other metrics, the sharp distinction between industrialized and developing nations when it comes to quality education has only widened in the past 50 years.

“We’ve made substantial progress around the globe in sending people to school,” Eric Hanushek, a professor of the economics of education at Stanford University, said.

“But a large number of people who have gone to school haven’t learned anything,” he continued.

Kenya, for example, has seen an increase in the portion of the educated population that is functionally illiterate.

Women are particularly vulnerable to receiving a substandard education. Due to a lack of indoor plumbing in certain schools in the Middle East and Northern Africa region, most notably sub-Saharan Africa, young women may be forced to skip three to seven days of school a month during their period. Violence and sexual harassment at school also contribute to the gender gap in quality of education.

In addition, studies have demonstrated that due to a lack of funding, many students in the global South leave school without obtaining the skills to succeed in the workplace.

“There is a high level of social segregation in many of these countries’ education systems. The pattern is similar to the UK, where rich children tend to go to better-resourced schools. But the differences in school quality are much more pronounced, and they are strongly linked to family background,” Dr. Rob Gruijters of the University of Cambridge said.

Education and policy experts suggest that the UN’s goals on education do not reflect the needs of the poorest citizens. Funding and aid networks that address education will need to be revamped to address the current crisis in quality of education.

The most recent UN policy issued on education is the Sustainable Development Goal Four, which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” 

The UN needs to live up to Sustainable Development Goal Four and take better policy steps to ensure quality education. Currently, the UN is failing to uphold its commitments and is a disappointment to its member states.