Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jul 01, 2023

Comprehensive education reforms are necessary to empower youth to overcome challenges and seize opportunities to advance the SDG 4 targets

SDG 4 (Quality Education): Tackling systemic challenges for youth capital

The challenges facing young people today are unprecedented. From lost educational opportunities due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns to the looming climate crisis, dangerous virtual spaces, and concerns over food and energy security triggered by geopolitical conflicts—the hurdles they face are numerous, complex, and interconnected. However, young people worldwide are rising to these challenges, coalescing around issues, and creating innovative solutions that consider diverse cultures, geographies, and development statuses. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on Quality Education, recognises the pivotal role that education plays in achieving comprehensive development in the longer horizon. It aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’, especially for the youth to thrive in the modern world.

Table 1: SDG 4 Scores (2023) 

Regions/Groupings SDG 4 Scores (out of 100)
Eastern Europe and Central Asia 87.9
East and South Asia 90.0
Latin America and the Caribbean 86.3
Middle East and North Africa 69.8
Oceania 58.0
OECD members 95.5
Small Island Developing States 75.5
Sub-Saharan Africa 41.4
Note: The 2023 SDG 4 scores are based on the following indicators: 1. Participation rate in pre-primary organised learning (% of children aged 4 to 6) 2. Net primary enrollment rate (%) 3. Lower secondary completion rate (%) 4. Literacy rate (% of the population aged 15 to 24) 5. Tertiary educational attainment (% of the population aged 25 to 34) 6. PISA score (worst 0-600 best) 7. Variation in science performance explained by socio-economic status (%) 8. Underachievers in science (% of 15-year-olds)

Source: Sustainable Development Report 2023, SDSN

Reimagining tech in education

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education systems globally, leading to lost school years and increasing educational inequality. It has exacerbated the divide between the Global North and South. As restrictions became widespread, schools had to close, impacting the achievement of SDG 4 targets. However, certain countries could reopen schools earlier due to better health infrastructure and advanced educational facilities. For instance, children in advanced economies lost an average of 15 school days in 2020. In contrast, the number increased to an average of 45 days for emerging-market economies and a staggering 72 days for children in the poorest nations. Bridging these disparities in educational losses between developed and developing countries has become crucial in the post-pandemic recovery processes, as it determines the long-term macroeconomic structure of the global economies, with youth capital playing a pivotal role.

Technology is a powerful tool for improving human capital building and addressing structural issues in education needed for achieving equitable quality education. It has the potential to democratise knowledge access, making education more accessible and inclusive, particularly in resource-constrained countries. The growing use of educational technology (ed-tech) platforms has played a critical role in helping young people to complete their studies during the pandemic through remote learning, interactive material, and individualised learning experiences. Thanks to open educational resources (OERs), online courses, and digital libraries, learners can access educational materials at their own pace and convenience—which was extremely helpful during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, technology alone is insufficient. The human element is crucial in delivering localised and contextualised education. While ed-tech platforms provide access to educational content, they should be complemented with effective pedagogical strategies and teacher support. Blended learning (combining online and in-person instructions) can accelerate learning and increase accessibility, particularly in developing countries where infrastructure limitations may persist.

Peer learning also plays a vital role in fostering collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Thus, education systems can foster a sense of community and promote social cohesion by creating opportunities for young people to work together, share knowledge, and learn from one another. Moreover, policy-making in education reform must be guided by feminist principles of inclusivity, considering dimensions such as global citizenship, finance, and the environment. Financial literacy and entrepreneurship education can equip them with the skills to navigate the complex economic landscape and pursue innovative solutions to social and environmental challenges.

Education systems can create a deeper awareness of sustainability, environmental stewardship, and cultural diversity by including indigenous perspectives, traditional ecological knowledge, and cultural heritage in the curriculum. However, traditional cultures often resist modern educational techniques and should be progressively transformed to embrace more innovative approaches. This necessitates interacting with communities, respecting their beliefs, and co-creating educational programmes that bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and modern abilities. Balancing cultural preservation with the learning of contemporary skills is critical for equipping young people to flourish in a fast-changing society.

Need for a comprehensive education reforms

Education reforms must be comprehensive to address young people's challenges, covering early childhood to higher education and lifelong learning. Early childhood education sets the foundation for future learning and development. Governments should invest in quality early childhood programmes prioritising play-based learning, cognitive development, and social-emotional skills. Primary and secondary education should cultivate critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and digital literacy. Assessments should go beyond rote memorisation and standardised testing, encompassing real-world applications and project-based learning. Strategies for educating different age groups must be tailored accordingly, with younger children requiring more playful elements in their education. Furthermore, education systems should be assessed based on the skills possessed by young people. International assessments like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provide valuable insights into students' proficiency in critical subjects. Policymakers can target resources and support to enhance learning outcomes by identifying areas where interventions are needed.

Accreditation is another critical area for education reform. Traditional certificates of education, including degrees and diplomas, often fail to accurately reflect young people's skills. As industries and job markets evolve, there is a growing demand for a more holistic approach to credentialing. Competency-based assessments, digital badges, and micro-credentials can provide a more nuanced and granular representation of young people's skills and achievements. This shift towards competency-based education and alternative credentials can bridge the gap between formal education and the skills required by employers.

In conclusion, comprehensive education reforms are necessary to empower youth to overcome these challenges and seize opportunities to advance the SDG 4 targets. Investments in education and skills development, leveraging technology, fostering inclusive and equitable learning environments, and embracing diverse cultural perspectives are crucial to enhancing human capital formation. By equipping young people with the knowledge, skills, and values they need, societies can ensure their full participation and success in the 21st-century economy and society.

Soumya Bhowmick is Associate Fellow with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation.

Anagh Chattopadhyay is pursuing M.Stat, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

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Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on sustainable development and ...

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Anagh Chattopadhyay

Anagh Chattopadhyay

Anagh Chattopadhyay has completed his M.Stat from Indian Statistical Institute Kolkata India and is currently a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of ...

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