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SDG 4: ‘Quality’ education and ‘lifelong’ learning – Who truly benefits?

Marjolein Camphuijsen | 13 July 2016

That education is crucial for individual wellbeing and societal development is rarely questioned. On the contrary, the importance of education is widely acknowledged and has been listed as a fundamental human right. Global movements such as Education for All (EFA), the Millennium Development Goals (MDG 2) and recently the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 4) reflect the international community’s political commitment to realizing this human right.

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And yet these global movements, together with the increased participation of major global corporations in education provision, have changed education systems all over the world. As the documentary Schooling the World convincingly shows, schooling systems worldwide have increasingly come to reflect Western ideas of education at the expense of non-Western forms. We could and should questioned this. Who truly benefits when every child is educated the same way?

To answer this question we could take a look at the Philippines, where I conducted fieldwork on education privatization in 2015. As in many other countries, the Philippine Government, plagued by financial and institutional constraints, has struggled to provide education for the growing school-age population. To fill the ‘governance gap’ in education provision and secure education for all, non-state actors have stepped in. They have been welcomed by government authorities, not unimportantly because they often provide a cheaper option than establishing government-run schools. Among these non-state actors are private corporations, such as Pearson, the world’s leading learning multinational corporation, but also McDonalds. They differ from more traditional non-state providers such as religious institutes and NGOs by actively pursuing commercial interests.

By joining the fight to get every child into school, private parties have found their way into the education system and reformed the education sector and the education agenda according to market-based principles. Skill-based development is increasingly steered towards meeting the needs of major global institutions. In the Philippines, the focus of the national curriculum has shifted towards equipping students with globally competitive skills. Students from all over the world are increasingly being trained in similar ways and are attracted to pursue careers in the urban consumer culture. All dream of becoming engineers, doctors and accountants, and are committed to obtaining technical skills. English is embraced as the universal language. 

Is this a problem? Is this not the way to reduce youth unemployment and grow the economy while at the same time offering young people in developing countries a chance to succeed? The answer is that this may be true for a lucky few, but for the majority it is not. Young individuals in countries such as the Philippines believe that if they work hard, they will become wealthy. But for most this will not be the case. As shown by Curtis Riep, instead of living the glorious, luxurious life they had hoped for, many Filipinos end up as low-paid, low-skilled workers in foreign countries. Others, such as Prachi Srivastava, have confirmed that by treating education as a private good, social disparity and inequality is likely to rise, a message not always welcomed by everybody.

At the same time, the emphasis on adjusting education to the needs of global corporations has too often failed to benefit individual and societal development. Travelling through the Philippines you can see billboards encouraging young Filipinos to take up farming instead of opting for the city life. Government officials have realized that further urbanization will exacerbate food insecurity in the long run. Unfortunately, farming does not hold out the same prospects of a glorious, luxurious lifestyle as city life, and so young people continue to abandon the countryside

While advocating the right to education we should ask ourselves what we are actually advocating. While the global movements have done their job of getting children into school, children often receive education that falls far short of meeting their right in education. In this context it is striking that current trends are rarely questioned, neither by governments and policymakers, nor by teachers, students or parents. As education systems worldwide increasingly adapt to the needs of the private sector, we may be moving further away from social justice and inclusive development than we are towards it. 

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection (via Flickr)