SDG4: Sustainable education, sustainable education, sustainable education

clock • 19 min read

Education is one of the cornerstones of sustainable development, but are businesses doing enough to support the emergence of a 21st century education system?

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, goes the old adage, teach him to fish and you feed him for life. It should be obvious, shouldn't it? Education is one of the cornerstones of both the green economy and the global pursuit of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is quite simply impossible to engineer a rapid shift to a decarbonised, clean, and healthy economy without a concerted focus on the skills required to enable and deliver such a transition. And although government may be the primary provider of education in many countries, it is also a topic of critical importance to the long-term health and vitality of the business community. And yet, four years on from the introduction of the SDGs, quality education is still neither universally accessible nor universally accepted as a social and economic good.

SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

The headline aim of the UN's fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4) is to deliver "quality education" for all, ensuring that all children globally are educated at primary and secondary levels by 2030. Access to universal education should be free and equitable, and it should teach young people the skills they need for life, it continues. The goal also seeks to give all children access to good early childhood care so that they are ready for primary education, and, as if the relevance for businesses was not already clear enough, for all adults to have access to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university. The general premise is that 'life-long learning' needs to become more than an aspirational buzz-phrase if people and businesses are to prosper in a fast-changing global economy.

As if these sweeping goals were not demanding enough, the SDGs also highlight how progress needs to be made in specific areas. The UN highlights how achieving its ambitions means tackling educational disparities linked to poverty, gender, race and disability, as well as supporting teacher training and ensuring schools are housed in good buildings and well equipped. And while foundational skills such literacy and numeracy will always be central to a good education, the UN also wants learners to be given access to a much broader curriculum than the traditional norm, taking in sustainable development, the environment, human rights, gender equality, and global citizenship.

Credit: UN Photo / Shareef Sarha

Many would say education is intrinsically valuable in helping people to flourish to their fullest potential. But as with all the goals, achieving SDG4 would have quantifiable repercussions far beyond its main remit. The Global Partnership for Education says education cuts poverty and child marriage, increases individual income, fosters peace and promotes gender equality. Its health benefits are particularly stark; reducing child and maternal mortality, cutting fertility rates, preventing disaster-related deaths and combatting serious infectious diseases such as HIV. The implications for carbon emissions, clean tech adoption, environmental sustainability, and climate resilience are strong too.

And it is not just the individual who benefits from modern and effective education systems. Every additional year of schooling can raise a country's average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 0.37 per cent, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is because people with academic, technical and vocational skills can get better paying jobs or set up their own businesses, thus bolstering the national tax base and helping the country compete on an international stage.

For education to truly be transformative, 'education as usual' will not suffice - United Nations 

The link between a good education system and a strong, competitive economy should be obvious, but sadly that is not always the case for business leaders and policymakers alike. Dr Rana Dajani runs a successful children's literacy project that began in Jordan and has spread to 46 countries, but she often has to sell it on benefits other than education. "The new way to talk to businesses is to talk about employability and entrepreneurship," she reflects, noting how focusing on the impact education can have on other Sustainable Development Goals, such as SDG8 on decent work and economic growth or SDG10 on reduced inequalities, can be useful. "You connect the dots," she says. "And then they realise the added value."

From a business perspective, a more educated workforce builds a deeper and diversified pool of potential employees to draw from. Improved skills bases are also critical to driving economic productivity, especially in the high-tech industries and information and service-based markets that will shape the 21st century. And a well-educated labour pool makes businesses and economies more resilient and better able to adapt to complex challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation.

The UN's 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report found environmental education can increase green knowledge and agriculture productivity, and is crucial for disaster preparedness. "For education to truly be transformative, 'education as usual' will not suffice," it notes. "Schools need to become exemplary places that breathe sustainability, finding ways to be more inclusive, participatory and healthy, as well as carbon-neutral and producing no waste and pollution."

The good news is that efforts to build a global education system that is better tailored for addressing the interlocking environmental challenges of the 21st century have some encouraging foundations to build on. A key measure of success for SDG4 is the delivery of universal youth literacy by 2030, and global progress on literacy rates has made impressive progress in recent decades. Indeed, global literacy rocketed from 69 per cent in 1976 to over 86 per cent in 2016, driven to a large extent by the predecessors to the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals, and UNESCO's Education for All project, which ran from 2000-2015. There has also been an encouraging improvement in gender parity in primary and secondary education worldwide.


But there is plenty of work still to be done if the goals on educational access and performance are to be met in the next 11 years, with some regions still struggling to ensure universal education. For example, early years and primary participation rates in sub-Saharan Africa stand at 41 per cent, while Northern Africa and Western Asia only reaches 52 per cent.


Moreover, Dr Jordan Naidoo, director of division for education 2030 support and coordination​ at UNESCO, notes that participation in school does not necessarily equate to the level of learning SDG4 wants to see become the norm. The latest UN statistics from 2018 show that more than half of children and teenagers worldwide - 617 million people - are still not meeting minimum literacy and numeracy standards. "In some contexts children who have spent four years in school cannot read or write," Naidoo says. "We have to go beyond the enrolment targets because quality of education - the outcomes - are not commensurate both with what is needed for participation in life more generally but also in terms of skills for work."

This disconnect between attendance and achievement is evident in wealthier and developing countries alike. Many industrialised nations are wrestling with education systems where significant numbers of children do not meet expected standards and where there are yawning skills gaps especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects which will be essential to developing greener economies.

The global barriers to good quality education are clear: some places simply do not have enough good schools, resources or qualified teachers; cost can be prohibitive, even in countries where school is free because of the price of equipment and uniforms, as well as opportunity costs; restrictive social norms and negative attitudes to education prevent some children and even adults from attending or progressing.

Conflict has also set back progress back in some areas. UNESCO's 2019 GEM Report says ignoring the education of migrants and refugees "squanders a great deal of human potential" and investing in them can boost development and economic growth, not only in host countries but also countries of origin. Individual countries have taken this argument on board. The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) for example, pledged £225m in 2018 to support education in the developing world, a substantial increase on its contribution to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). It said the money would "reduce the risk young people are forced to turn to crime or to search for a better life outside their own country - which directly impacts the UK". With climate impacts expected to fuel migratory pressures in the coming decades, the hard-headed economic rationale for strengthening education systems in those countries most exposed to climate risks is becoming ever clearer for some developed economy governments.

Credit: UN Photo / Marco Dormino

One of the challenges for such initiatives is that there is a shortfall in comparable international data on education, which UNESCO is trying to address together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and international donors such as the UK's DFID and the Norwegian government. But even with better data humanitarian aid is not nearly enough to plug the $39bn annual financing gap the UN estimates is needed to achieve quality pre-primary, primary and secondary education for all in low and lower middle income countries by 2030.

The SDG is clear that access to basic education - primary and secondary levels - should be free to everyone, so governments will always play an important role. "The state should be the provider of first recourse because that's the most universal and equitable way to provide the service," says Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy at Save the Children. "As soon as you start charging families for the service, which is necessary for the private sector model, you immediately start to exclude children."

But Nhan-O'Reilly still sees a big role for business more generally in providing services to support state systems. There are certainly direct commercial opportunities from the development of new and improved educational infrastructure such as buildings and green spaces, the development and marketing of physical and digital educational materials, and teacher training and ongoing professional development.

But experts agree there are also wide-ranging and often indirect opportunities that explain why more businesses should engage with SDG4 and the global push to improve education systems.

For example, Aisha Yousafzai, associate professor of global health at the Harvard School of Public Health, says there is a significant commercial opportunity in pre-primary education - the crucial five years before children typically start school. "In order for children to be school-ready, they need to have social skills to make friends, need to be able to focus so they can follow what the teacher is saying, curiosity and motivation to be able to really start formal learning around literacy and numeracy," she says.

"There are lots of reasons why those skills don't develop in disadvantaged communities. It might be to do with factors relating to poverty - stresses in the home, malnutrition - but it might also be lack of access to good childcare or parents needing additional support to promote a more stimulating or enriching environment in the home."

Yousafzai says there has been a big growth in low-cost private early education services around the world - and it is an under-reported trend that is likely to continue. "Whether we're talking about high, middle or low-income countries, we know families need to have somewhere safe for their children to be looked after while they're working," she says. "Even if it's informal, even in the poorest communities, women are out working and need to have places that are safe - and they're willing to pay."

The problem is not all of these spaces are of good quality, which is why organisations such as Kenya-based social enterprise Kidogo are trying to improve standards across the sector. The group runs its own best practice early childhood centres and then franchises out its model to local women who get training, resources, and ongoing mentorship to help them start or grow their own childcare businesses.

Kidogo operates a franchise of early childhood centres in Kenya

For Yousafzai, improving and expanding such services is not just a children's issue but one of female empowerment; women can go to work knowing that their children are getting looked after properly and the early education sector's predominantly female workforce also receives an economic boost. There is a knock-on environmental and economic impact, because better-educated women tend to have healthier and smaller families, improved access to jobs, and are more politically aware and engaged - all of which is essential for delivering on many of the other SDGs.

And as numerous studies have shown, educating women remains one of the key ways to help countries respond to environmental challenges. For example, a recent report from the US think tank Brookings highlights the critical importance of education, both in formal and informal spaces, in setting girls up to take on climate change leadership roles later in life.

Technological development provides another key opportunity for businesses to improve access to education and boost its quality while turning a profit. A CSR Europe paper on the value of the SDGs for Europe, undertaken by research consultancy Frost and Sullivan, concludes there is "more of an assured confidence" that SDG4 can be achieved with technologies already on offer, because digital systems can help relieve economies of key educational challenges such as teacher shortages and lack of infrastructure. In Africa, for example, e-learning is "the best possible solution for democratising higher education… and ensuring that access to quality higher education is not limited by infrastructure or tools," the report states. "Innovators from anywhere in the world - including Europe - can help address this."

Access to the internet is one key barrier to the realisation of this digital education boom - a barrier organisations like the Vodafone Foundation are trying to resolve. Its Instant Network Schools project, piloted at Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, provides a box full of connectivity hardware, power and digital educational content to set up 'Instant Classrooms' in isolated communities. The technology was developed by experts at Vodafone and many volunteers are Vodafone employees, who get time off to spend several weeks on location.

The project has seen better attendance at schools, improvements in exam results and increased ICT literacy. In fact, the Instant Classroom and the technology behind it provided so popular that other organisations wanted to buy it, so the Vodafone Foundation is setting up a social enterprise to channel the profits back into its work. 


But if connectivity can be delivered, the potential for digital education services to support the pursuit of SDG4 is considerable. Frost and Sullivan foresees particular commercial opportunities in augmented and virtual reality, massive open online courses (MOOCs), personalised learning, and digital school services, and estimates a €235bn global opportunity in these areas by 2025. The provision of MOOC platforms to schools and universities alone could be worth €37bn.

Mobile learning - currently booming in India - is another big growth area that could disrupt traditional learning platforms. And all these technologies have the potential to be tailored to different education audiences across the world.

But Save the Children's Nhan-O'Reilly warns there is no technological silver bullet. "We always will need a mix," he advises. "I think it depends on the baseline of the population you're working with as well as the infrastructure and the ability to absorb and utilise a new technology. My view is that even in very developed countries you have to recognise the need for skilled teachers, who if they have access to that technology can use it in the service of learning."

Dominic Vergine, head of sustainability and corporate responsibility at the industry-leading microprocessor tech firm Arm, says the technology sector has to come together to present the positive contribution new technologies can make to global education and SDG4. "We acknowledge that there are risks but we want to look at how would to mitigate them and move the dial towards a more utopian potential and apply these technologies in the best way for society," he says.

If business involvement in improving educational access and quality for children lies primarily in the services and technologies the private sector can provide governments, not to mention the tax take it generates to underpin public education systems, the role of corporates in delivering SDG4's focus on life-long learning is even more obvious.

SDG4's target 4.4 pledges to "substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship" and it is hard to envisage how it can be delivered without a huge contribution from the business community. Many businesses already operate apprenticeships and in-house training, while educational outreach and skills development remains a top priority for a green economy that constantly needs to refresh the skillset of its workforce to keep pace with emerging clean technologies and green business models.

Educational outreach and skills development is a top priority for a green economy | Credit: William Drake Photography / DeepCwind Consortium

Closer cooperation between businesses and schools and universities is also essential to address current and future skills gaps. UNESCO's Naidoo points to the longstanding challenge of the mismatch between labour and education. Education should not be seen as an assembly line to provide workers for the economy, he warns, but it does need to be better tuned to the strategic needs of a country and its businesses in a way that makes students and learners coming out of the system more adaptable.

This challenge is likely to become more acute as the low-carbon transition gathers pace and technologies and business models that have dominated the global economy for decades give way to alternative approaches. Can engineering courses pivot to ensure students are up to date with the latest renewable energy and electric vehicle technologies, or do they risk providing graduates who better understand how fossil fuel infrastructures operate? Can schools inspire enough children to engage with STEM subjects to ensure decarbonising economies can draw on the technical skills they need?

Naidoo says the private sector is already to working to ensure educational policies and curriculums are adaptable to changing economic and technical realities to some extent. "But it's not at the scale where we see it across an entire system within a country," he reflects. "There need to be much more systematic partnerships between large business providers and governments not only to address quality and equity challenges but for consistent and across-the-board application of innovation and solutions that go beyond the classroom."

Nhan-O'Reilly points out that there is a strong commercial case for businesses to engage more with education policy, given how many benefits result from a generally better educated and skilled workforce. Not only does it make a company's services and products better, but it helps grow existing markets and develop new ones, he explains.

Education should prepare children for a flexible future | Credit: Vazovsky

However, he argues that while the health and pharmaceutical industries is keenly aware that keeping people alive means sustaining a market for their products and services, the education sector is "a little behind the ball on this".

Again, the connections between improved education and the urgent need to transition to a net zero emission economy within a matter of decades are obvious, but are rarely discussed. British Green MP Caroline Lucas' recent suggestion that the UK's national curriculum should be changed to introduce a new GCSE for Natural History was notable for its rarity value. Meanwhile, the green economy may be growing fast to incorporate numerous multinational giants, but it is yet to launch a high-profile and co-ordinated push in support of more sustainable education.

Overall it will be for the benefit of the world and humanity to have a better educated and more resilient workforce - Dominic Vergine, Arm

"We see the emergence of Google and Apple in the education field," says Nhan-O'Reilly. "Apple has a big partnership with the Malala Fund [the charity set up by female education activist Malala Yousafzai]. But in general there isn't as much innovation in the educational world where you can imagine corporate partnerships [having a role] instead of giving philanthropically."

One positive example is Save the Children's partnership with education giant Pearson in Jordan. It has provided money for immediate education provision to refugees, undertaken advocacy work to raise awareness of educational problems in conflict settings and begun researching new solutions. Nhan-O'Reilly says Pearson gets good publicity from such projects but also gets to use its existing expertise in a more creative way. "It gets to explore work that might not be principally commercial in a new environment, to innovate and test some of this thinking," he explains. "It talks about being the world's leading learning company and I think it takes that responsibility quite seriously."


Nhan-O'Reilly also points to adult literacy as a somewhat neglected part of SDG4 which has significant potential for corporate engagement. In wealthier countries this problem might be tackled through government campaigns, he says, but in poorer areas social marketing could play a role instead. "I'm sitting in London and there are texts all around me, stuff I can pick up," he says. "But that doesn't exist, say, in a lot of sub-Saharan Africa. There are fast-moving consumer goods where people get their information. There are lots of examples of companies playing a role in promoting public messaging or benefits using their channels and presence."

NGOs such as World Reader, for example, are developing innovative partnerships with publishers and local telecommunication companies to allow people to access reading materials for free on their mobile phones. As well as boosting literacy rates, these tools can be used to communicate important public messages on topics such as health, agriculture, and the environment.

Nhan-O'Reilly admits there are some risks to this corporatisation of education. "But the test of that for a population should be the equity challenge," he argues. "Does the corporate private sector's engagement address or exacerbate inequities?"

Done right, businesses can and should play a key role in delivering on SDG4 and there are compelling economic reasons for them to do so. None of the SDGs, not to mention the vision of a net zero emission economy set out in the Paris Agreement, can be achieved without an expanded and enhanced education system, as well as a renewed focus on life-long learning.

Sadly some governments and businesses remain indifferent to this message, perhaps recognising the huge power and disruption effective education can unlock. But the global pursuit of SDG4 looks set to accelerate. As Arm's Vergine argues, changing societies and economies might cause short-term losses for some industries, but the long-term opportunities that arise from accessible education are huge. "I always think back to the resistance there was to the printing press," he says. "Some people don't like changes, some people benefit greatly, but overall it will be for the benefit of the world and humanity to have a better educated and more resilient workforce around the world."

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