As the world economy slows and the Bush administration displays a degree of ambiguity over its aid policies, targets set last year in Dakar for gender equity in schools by 2005 and universal primary education by 2015 are looking over-ambitious.
"People recognise the importance of the international development goals," said economist Christopher Colcough, of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. "There are a number of major problems that stand in the way of reaching these targets."
Cultural as well as economic obstacles stood in the way of achieving gender equity by 2005, he said. "Gender equity and universal primary education should have the same end date. The gender issue is one reason some countries cannot get to 'education for all'."
Fiona Leach, a specialist in education and development at Sussex's Institute of Education, added: "Governments and international agencies continue to see exclusion in education in terms of out-of-school children without examining who is the most vulnerable to exclusion."
While exclusion of rural and migrant populations and linguistic minorities had been recognised, disability, age, religion, or poverty had rarely been the focus of attention, she said.
"Governments need to support not only initiatives to expand school places, but implementation of innovative and less costly alternatives to formal schooling."
CamFed, which is campaigning for gender equity within the overall objectives, has launched a series of international seminars with the Cambridge University African Studies Centre.
Ato Quayson, director of the centre, said the "problem facing African universities is that of the undemocratic environments that misdirect scarce resources away from... education.
"The issue of capacity building for African institutions requires more open forms of government to be put in place.
"Universities in the UK and Europe can make some modest contributions that would have a major impact on the direction of capacity building. The first is to establish workshops across the continent to bring together researchers across disciplines."
School-age population has been growing at 3.4 per cent per year but primary school enrolment rose by an annual average of 0.2 per cent between 1990 and 1996.
- Children aged 7 unable to enter primary school: 35,000 (15%)
- Children aged 7-13 not in school: 560,000 (32%)
- Children leaving school at end of primary education: 120,000 (65%)
- Children unable to obtain place after Grade 9: 50,000 (80%)