Equality and Quality in Education

By Kelsi Wilsher and Joris Voorhoeve

Nelson Mandela said that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’[1]. He was right as achieving this goal will have a strong, positive effect on reaching other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has been estimated that 420 million people can be lifted out of poverty, and maternal deaths can be reduced by two thirds if all women in low-income countries (LICs) and low-middle income countries (LMICs) complete secondary education[2]. Education boosts the economy and increases incomes as more people are paid for specialised skills[3]. Furthermore, equality in education will lead to greater gender equality resulting in a reduced number of child marriages. ‘In sum, education is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and its future.’[4]

Almost all governments profess that education deserves priority in their programmes. Economists concluded long ago that education has a very high rate of economic return, as it increases the capacity, to create well-being and income[3]. Education is the fourth SDG of the UN, set by all member states. ‘Without a radical shift in education policy and investment, more than 220 million children, adolescents and youth will still be out of school in 2030’[5]. Areas of the world are affected differently. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest percentages of ‘youth […] not in school’[6].

In many countries social attitudes create gender inequality in education. In South Asia 4/5 of all girls will ‘never enter the formal education system, compared to two out of five […] boys.’[6] Access also depends on geographic location. In conflict- afflicted areas around ‘50 per cent of out-of-school children of primary school age’[7] have no education. Poverty and lack of political will further restricts access to education.  This is even harder for those with disabilities[4]. These barriers should not exist[2].

Quality education is not available in all countries and regions as teachers sometimes lack sufficient training.  There is a need for more school resources and improved sanitation facilities which especially affects the attendance of girls[5]. Initiatives to improve classroom construction and accessibility, as well as sanitation and water infrastructure in schools, require better government policies. Reducing education fees will see more students enrolled. Some other policy options to achieve this SDG are: raising the age of compulsory education to the minimum of 9 years worldwide and giving poor families ‘financial support […] to cover the direct and indirect costs of schooling’[6].

The cost to finance this SDG varies according to studies and countries. In 2015 estimates for the achievement of pre-primary, primary, and secondary education in all LICs and LMICs ranged between $330[8]-$340 billion[9]. This report[9], and current 2019 reports, estimates that even with increases in public expenditure ‘there will be an annual financing gap of US$39 billion […] in LICs and LMICs’[2].

A 2019 study estimates that $1.25 per day is the amount it costs on average for one child to attend ‘a full cycle of pre-primary through secondary education’ in LICs and LMICs[4]. This small amount adds up to more money than developing countries can afford to spend. International aid is crucial, especially in filling the daily average gap of 15 cent per child[4]. Another 2019 report states that between 2019-2030 there is an estimated annual average cost of $258 billion in LICs. Per capita costs are $122 in LICs and $167 in LMICs per year[10].

In order ‘to produce all of the SDG 4 indicators’ an ‘overall investment of $280 million per year for the whole world’[11] is needed. $128 million of this $280 million ‘are new funds’ on top of the current $152 million[12]. Financing $128 million annually in addition is all it takes to achieve this global education goal.


[1] UN (no date) Building on the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Speech- at the launch of Mindset Network, Johannesburg, South Africa (16 July 2003) [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/events/mandeladay/assets/pdf/mandela-exhibit-panels.pdf [Accessed 6 Dec 2019

[2] UNESCO (2019) #CommitToEducation. The world is off track in achieving the global education goal, SDG 4. [ONLINE] Available at : https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000368935?posInSet=3&queryId=91d7ecf0-e52e-49cc-a21a-0623d0207764=page2 [Accessed 28 April 2019]

[3] OECD (2006), “The Returns to Education: Links between Education, Economic Growth and Social Outcomes”, in Education at a Glance 2006: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. [ONLINE] Available at : https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/eag-2006-11-en.pdf?expires=1588774663&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=9BA79FF4880B6E3E8B9E1C2D86B2DEB7 [Accessed 6 May 2020

[4] Global Partnership for Education (2019) Education. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.globalpartnership.org/education [Accessed 5 Dec 2019

[5] The SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee (2019) Eight reasons to # CommitToEducation- Sustainable Development Goal 4, July 2019. [ONLINE] Available at : https://www.sdg4education2030.org/eight-reasons-committoeducation-sustainable-development-goal-4-july-2019 [Accessed 5 Dec 2019]

[6] UNESCO (2016) Leaving no one behind: How far on the way to universal primary and secondary education? [ONLINE] Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000245238 [Accessed 28 Nov 2019]

[7] UN (no date) Sustainable Development Goals. 4. Quality Education. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/ [Accessed 3 Nov 2019]

[8] UNCTAD (2014) ‘World Investment Report 2014. Investing in the SDGs: An Action Plan’. [ONLINE] Available at: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/wir2014_en.pdf [Accessed 26 Nov 2019]

[9]  UNESCO (2015) Pricing the right to education: The cost of reaching new targets by 2030. Policy paper18. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/node/819 [Accessed 28 Nov 2019]

[10] SDSN (2019) SDG Costing & Financing for Low-income Developing Countries. [ONLINE] Available at: https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/be6d1d56/files/uploaded/FINAL_SDG%20Costing%20%26%20Finance%20for%20LIDCS%2024%20Sept%20-%20Final.pdf  [Accessed 25 Nov 2019]

[11] UIS-UNESCO (2018) Investing millions today will save billions in the future. [ONLINE] Available at:                    http://uis.unesco.org/en/blog/sdg-4-data-investing-millions-today-will-save-billions-future [Accessed 9 Dec 2019]

[12] UIS-UNESCO (2018) The investment case for SDG 4 Data. [ONLINE] Available at:   http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/investment-case-sdg4-data.pdf [Accessed 29 Nov 2019]