Last week, I had the opportunity to attend some discussions that were part of the Transforming Education Pre-Summit that happened at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from June 28–30. The aim of this pre-summit was to utilize the evolving discussions on transforming education to create a shared vision and suggest actions in the lead-up to the Transforming Education Summit in New York later in September. This series of events brought together key stakeholders such as Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and Global Partnership for Education, high-level practitioners, technocrats, organizations, NGOs, government officials, and young people working extensively in the field of global education to achieve SDG 4. Several issues around education were addressed, ranging from ensuring equitable access to education, solving challenges around funding and financing across all levels, crisis-sensitive planning to make education systems more resilient, teacher management, the role of education in solving climate change issues, and other focus areas. I was able to attend some of the sessions bordering on crisis-sensitive planning and re-imagining education in Africa to include African heritage and history. The following paragraphs are my key highlights of these events and their impact on the future of education, especially in Africa.
1. Two Flagship Programs for Africa
The Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, Ms. Stefania Giannini presented two flagship programs to accelerate the steps towards achieving SDG 4 for the African continent, namely Campus Africa and General History of Africa. The former is aimed at connecting universities on the continent together to expand and increase collaboration and opportunities for students and researchers. Since Sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for about 9% of the global enrollment in higher education, access needs to be democratized to address the issue of inequality, and this is what Campus Africa aims to do. Inasmuch as this program sounds genuine, very optimistic, and has the capacity to address salient issues, I am concerned about the plethora of problems in the education systems of different countries and how this will affect Campus Africa’s operation. For instance, currently, the Association of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria is on strike for about four months due to unpaid salaries. With a Campus Africa initiative that will enable mobility across universities and the transfer of knowledge and expertise across universities, internal issues such as a strike action where schools are closed down indefinitely could affect the flourishing of Campus Africa. Exchange or mobility programs will not be ideal for students in some countries, nor will cross-border collaboration. This is where the issue of accountability of governments and ministries of education on the continent comes in. How will governments be held accountable to ensure that they are creating the much-needed atmosphere to foster research, education, and cross-border collaboration? This is of high importance for Campus Africa to be impactful.
The other flagship program, General History of Africa, is not new, and it is aimed at decolonizing the curriculum and having an intercultural approach to teaching. It also aims to prioritize identity, history, and languages within curriculums across African countries. This is a laudable program that has the ability to impact the understanding of African culture and history by Africans and even among the international community. What needs to be done, however, is to ensure that the leadership and management of education ministries not only prioritize this on paper but practically see it as a prerequisite to teaching and learning in African schools. They must be able to lead conversations globally that will ensure that Africans with a strong background in African history and languages are not disadvantaged in the global arena.
In some societies, like Nigeria, some people do not want their children to learn the local Nigerian dialects. Their reasoning stems from the fact that they feel that the languages will be irrelevant to their children when they target international opportunities. They feel as though it will never be needed outside of Nigeria and so it has no return on investment as opposed to languages like English and French. The leadership of education ministries and African leaders must rise to the occasion to help promote African languages abroad and to help them see the cultural significance and relevance of these languages and their history. For instance, if knowing an international language and one or two local languages from your country puts you at an advantage of gaining admission, scholarship, or an opportunity within and outside of Africa, this will motivate people to take the learning of indigenous African languages seriously. Only then will African graduates see that learning their own language could pave the way for them career-wise within and outside of Africa.
2. Teachers Should Be Prioritized in the Conversation
Another important observation was that while teachers were included in some of the conversations, they were not really prioritized in the entire discussion. The focus was mainly on learners, and how to ensure that they get the quality education desired. While new models of learning peer-to-peer learning between students may have sidelined the role of teachers, they are still important in the entire process, especially in contexts like in a refugee setting environment. We depend on teachers to deliver learning content, hence, they are at the crux of the entire learning experience. This is especially true for early childhood development, primary school children, students with disabilities, as well as students who are in crisis situations like refugees.
The last few months working on a research project with IIEP-UNESCO have made me realize the salient roles that teachers play in the lives of primary school refugee children. The amount of help refugee students need is more than the average amount of help needed by students in the national curriculum. This is because many refugee children have gone through traumatic situations, lost their guardians, stopped school for some time, and have limited opportunities to thrive and develop their potential. Teachers and counselors are highly needed in an environment like this to drive changes and to help harness the potentials of these children, “leaving no one behind” whilst contributing to the achievement of SDG 4. Therefore, teachers should be brought back into the narrative and prioritized, as they are crucial in accelerating the achievement of SDG 4, and favorable conditions to teach and educate learners must also be provided.
3. Crisis-Sensitive Planning (CSP)
Crisis Sensitive Planning is a term I recently discovered in my current role as a research assistant (intern) with IIEP-UNESCO. It involves strengthening education systems to be resilient enough to withstand crises such as internal conflicts, war, pandemics, and refugee crises, among others. The aim of the CSP model is to ensure that the education of learners continues regardless of the unfortunate, and sometimes sudden crises that befalls societies across the world. Over the last few months of my work with the Crisis Sensitive Planning team at IIEP-UNESCO, I have come to a conclusion that CSP is one of the major adaptations or changes that ALL education systems must go through to achieve SDG 4.
At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries witnessed a period where students were not able to physically attend school. For some parts of the world, learning continued as digital technology was adapted. For others, especially in some developing countries, learning stopped abruptly as the education systems of those countries were not prepared enough to withstand the health crisis, denying access to a basic right for millions across the world. This is a disservice to humanity and an injustice to these learners. When education systems are strengthened to be resilient, they are able to withstand changes and crises, and learning can continue for all learners. A resilient education system will ensure that teachers fleeing war zones can be accredited in host countries and can start teaching again; it will ensure that learners can be integrated into the education systems of societies seamlessly without negatively affecting the quality of teaching and learning for both the teacher and the learner, and it will also build teachers’ and students’ capacities to effectively utilize the internet and technology to continue teaching and learning respectively in the event of a pandemic or another crisis.
4. Funding Issues
Funding remains one of the biggest challenges within international or global education. In fact, it was mentioned in one of the meetings I attended that Early Childhood Development (ECD) is one of the most underfunded sectors within global education. But at the same time, students needing to progress into higher education cannot afford it even in countries like Nigeria, where education fees are relatively low. The reason why only 9 percent of Africans have access to higher education can be due to a host of reasons, but one of the main reasons is the lack of finance. Bridging this financing gap with private and public sector investments will go a long way in ensuring equitable access for all. Also, it was noted in the pre-summit that Africa only contributes the lowest (3%) of the research being done within STEM globally. An improvement in funding will go a long way towards raising this number within a few years. Funding models across all levels, (global education partners, and public and even private institutions) need to be re-imagined. For instance, ALX is a program that has a “pay it forward” model that provides access to in-demand skills and training to people and allows them to pay back after they land a job in the future. What this does is equip students with the skills upfront, facilitate their career progression journeys by fast-tracking their job search journey, and then when they get the job, they pay back. This model, if adopted in other parts of the continent, could contribute immensely to reducing the problem of funding whilst equipping young people with the skills needed. Thus, rethinking funding mechanisms among global education partners is crucial to address funding concerns.
5. Special Needs Education (SNE)
Another issue to highlight is that of Special Needs Education (SNE). This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest challenges within education facing the continent. The reason why I am highlighting this is that generally, African governments have not put people with disability at the forefront of their policies; therefore, it is difficult to take concrete steps in terms of educating them effectively. I think governments need to first prioritize the demands of disabled people, put them at the center of policy making, and then, start providing welfare services and amenities to them. Once this is prioritized and governments start seeing it as a crucial, necessary step to take, ministries of education will also prioritize this, and schools (both private and public) will be mandated to equip themselves with the services and tools needed to ensure that students with disabilities are not left behind.
In conclusion, this article will not be complete if I fail to mention the role that we, young people, have to play in accelerating the achievement of SDG 4. It is my opinion that more young people should be allowed in high-level dialogues, not to just check the “involvement of young people demographics box”, but to allow us to drive some of these conversations and share our thoughts and ideas to understand what we think, what we want, and how global institutions can effectively support us. After all, we are the main target audience of these dialogues, policies, and interventions, and it is crucial that whatever solution is being sought is human-centric and puts us at the center.