A challenge for our times

May 18, 2001

With 872 million illiterate adults in the world, Unesco's dream of education for all is a distant one. Koichiro Matsuura details the realistic objectives ahead.

A year ago, representatives from most of the countries of the world met in Dakar to renew their commitment to ensure quality basic education for all their citizens.

This means much more than providing the chance for all people to learn how to read, write and count. Quality basic education for all is an education that provides all boys and girls, men and women, whether in school or out, with essential learning skills and includes learning to live together. Basic education offers people the opportunity to be actors in the global village while remaining rooted in their cultural contexts.

Education for all represents a huge challenge. Today, there are 113 million school-age children who do not go to school, 137 million illiterates of 15-24 years and an estimated 872 million adult illiterates. Most of those deprived of an education are girls.

Will Dakar's commitment to education for all prove yet again to be the empty words of an international community that is longer on declarations of intent than on achievement?

There are three reasons for being more optimistic today. First, empirical evidence about the central role of basic education in development - particularly the education of girls - is overwhelming. Although the defence budgets of many poor countries will probably exceed their education spending for years, more leaders acknowledge that an educated population provides the only long-term assurance of national security.

Second, after a decade when rich countries actually reduced their financial contribution to the development of their poorer neighbours, the volume of aid is inching up again. More important, those contributions tend to focus on long-term initiatives for the elimination of poverty rather than on short-term projects designed to generate photo opportunities and contracts for businesses at home. Basic education is the central preoccupation of multilateral and bilateral development agencies, some of which have given the significant assurance that no country with a serious plan for providing basic education will see it fail because of lack of funds.

Third, there is a widespread hope that modern information and communication technology will provide new and cost-effective methods for extending basic education through distance learning. But is this expectation grounded in reality? The expansion of distance learning has had a huge impact on access to higher education. In India, more than 1 million people study in the network of national and state open universities. In the rest of the world, ten open universities enrol 2 million students.

But higher education is one thing; basic schooling and literacy are another. Can the success of distance learning in university-level study be replicated when applied to the education of children and illiterate adults? The attraction of reaching large numbers of learners is clear, but is distance education for all feasible and desirable? And can it deliver good-quality basic education for all?

Distance learning is not a magical answer to educational challenges at any level. However, appropriate forms of distance education are needed in order to expand access to basic education. The key word is "appropriate". In many parts of the world, distance education is only possible through radio, cassettes or television, though even the latter may be beyond the reach of some countries.

The word appropriate also applies to teaching and learning methodologies as well as contents. The scale of the Dakar challenge should not panic us into dismissing current practices or abandoning traditional methods, many of which are embedded in long-established cultural values and patterns of linguistic diversity.

We should seek to develop forms of distance education based on ICTs that are attuned to the lives of people in their communities and to their understanding of how socialisation and cultural transmission should be undertaken. We believe teachers can be trained to relate new distance education and ICT-based methods to more traditional approaches but this requires systematic planning, open discussion with all stakeholders and a hard look at cost-efficiency and pedagogical outcomes.

We must continue to identify and promote good practices and innovations through which distance education techniques can be combined with the immediacy of face-to-face relations in the teaching-learning process.

Unesco believes that, through appropriate pre-service and in-service training of teachers and tutors, distance education may have an important role to play in certain contexts. Nigeria alone needs to train 600,000 new teachers in the next decade. There is no way to hit such a target by expanding traditional approaches towards the preparation and certification of teachers. We must find ways to attract people to the teaching profession in developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa where unmet educational needs are greatest and where the HIV/Aids pandemic is most rampant.

The technological aspects of distance education may attract people to the teaching profession, but the content and quality of the training they receive is crucial. Such training must be carefully planned and monitored otherwise access may be increased, but access to what?

We can only achieve the ambitious goals of education for all by building extensive and enduring partnerships. This is already the case within the multilateral circuits of the United Nations system, with bilateral development cooperation agencies, and among various regional organisations.

While education remains primarily the responsibility of national governments, they must draw not only upon "external" partners but also upon the active participation of all members of civil society, including teacher organisations, parents' associations, community groups and non-governmental organisations involved in education. The private sector and business are also welcome contributors in this partnership framework.

Part of the risk of a technology-driven approach to basic education is that it will become business-driven too. This must be avoided. The shared task of providing education for all is massive.

Generating education of real quality and relevance is even more daunting. Together, these represent one of the greatest ethical challenges of our times. Education is a basic human right; as such, its fulfilment is everyone's responsibility.

Koichiro Matsuura is director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

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