Education—even at the most basic levels—not only makes poor countries richer, it also saves lives. For example, if sub-Saharan Africa were achieving universal lower secondary education for women by 2030, it would prevent up to 3.5 million child deaths from 2050-2060. Achieving universal upper secondary completion across the globe by that date would also prevent up to 50,000 disaster-related deaths per decade by 2040-2050. And by universalising upper secondary education in low income countries, the world could increase per capita earnings by 75 percent and lift 60 million people out of poverty.
Last year the UN set a goal for a “world with equitable and universal access to quality education at all levels” by 2030. Unfortunately, a new report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says the world will be 50 years late in achieving the objective of global universal education.
On current trends, universal primary completion (kindergarten through grade 5) will be achieved in 2042; universal lower secondary completion (grades 6-8) in 2059; and universal upper secondary completion (grades 8-12) in 2084. At this rate, notes the report, the poorest countries will not achieve universal lower secondary completion until the end of the century—over 100 years later than the richest countries.
But the richest countries are also not on track to achieve the projected global education commitments. According to the report, even at the fastest rate of progress ever seen in the regions, 1 in 10 countries in Europe and Northern America would still not achieve universal upper secondary completion by 2030.
While we won’t reach the goal in the next 15 years, even achieving it by the end of the century will be an amazing accomplishment. It took even the richest countries hundreds of years to reach universal attainment of primary education: 1970 for the United States; 1980 for France and Australia; and 2005 for Spain and China. Even Luxembourg—a European country with a per-capita GDP of nearly $100,000—only met the goal last year.
So while we still have a long way to go on education, we should be encouraged by how far we’ve already come.