World set to miss adult education SDG targets

Poor budgets for education take a hit post-pandemic


July 1, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

World set to miss adult education SDG targets

UNESCO says only 94 pc of youth likely to be literate by 2030 and this figure declines to 90 pc for the adults (MIG Photos)

As governments and civil society groups around the world focus on bringing children back to the school and try to make up for the lost time due to school closure for over two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, adult education has been forgotten. It has already led to rise in number of illiterate adults that is now at record heights.

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Nations around the world have committed to eradicating adult illiteracy as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of providing education for all by the year 2030. However, with barely eight years to go, even as the world struggles with bringing children’s education back on track following the 30-month disruption due to Covid-19 pandemic, the education of the adults who had to miss the school or dropped out seems to have fallen by the wayside in 2015 and has stayed there since.

According to a report by UNESCO published last year, the global adult literacy rate remained unchanged between 2015 and 2019, with the number of illiterate youth and adults dipping by a marginal 10 million during these five years, leaving a mountain of 773 million illiterates in the world. Of this, while the youth, between 15-24 years of age, numbered barely 100 million, with a literacy rate of 92 pc, the real challenge for the world lay in reaching out to the 673 million other illiterates, of whom a significant proportion are those 25 years or older. UNESCO says that the youth literacy rates are higher than adult literacy as schooling for the youth has increased over the past decades.

As with practically everything, the challenge of adult non-literacy is unevenly distributed around the world. Three-fourths of the world’s illiterate adults live in three of the poorest regions in the world – 47 pc in South Asia and West Asia, while 27 pc live in sub-Saharan Africa. And as usual, the gender bias is greatly reflected here as well. Almost two-thirds or 63 pc of all illiterate adults are women. What is specially worrying here is that despite all the talk of gender parity and several efforts to put this in practice, the gender gap in adult illiteracy has remained stubbornly at the same level for almost two decades.

Surprisingly, while the issue of adult non-literacy may be more severe in the poorer countries, the challenge is not limited to these nations. As many as 19 pc of adults living in the world’s richest nations, members of the OECD, had low literacy skills and 23.5 pc had low numeracy skills.

It is also crucial to note that as the data pre-dated the two years of Covid-19 pandemic, when access to education around the world suffered in an unprecedented manner, the actual situation on the ground is likely to have taken a severe beating in every single nation and more so in the developing and least developed countries in the world. This is true for every single person – child, youth or adult. And currently even as the pandemic has receded, the governments and families are still struggling to bring their children back into education in the way it was in 2019 and earlier.

There are several factors that have changed. One is the sheer disruption of education, especially in the in-person format. Second is that a number of teachers have given up their jobs and sought an early retirement, as has been witnessed in other sectors of the economy, creating a severe shortage of workers as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

But most importantly, the funding for education that has historically been low in poor countries is likely to dry up even further as the governments are trying to balance their budgets after three years of running unprecedented levels of fiscal deficits, which has fuelled the current inflation that has taken hold of the whole world and which is forcing the governments to adopt sharp cutbacks in their spending.

Poor spending on education

Once again, sectors like education and health are likely to take a backseat when the governments sit down and make their budgets. Already, before the pandemic, a good 60 pc of governments around the world spent less than 4 pc of their budgets and this number has indeed declined or at best stayed the same, even though the need of the hour is to spend significantly more on education in order to help the students and teachers recover from the pandemic shock. But in face of limited budgets, a number of schools that were already vulnerable to closure before the pandemic either have been or would perhaps be shut down. Other measures seen are cutbacks in the number of teachers and support staff.

As a result, in a scenario where education as a whole is set to suffer for the near future, hence it is certain that the focus of the society, the governments as well as NGOs is likely to be on restoring education for the children and youth first. The adult literacy is almost certain to be given a back seat, and perhaps justifiably.

And while there are some reports on impact on the education of the youth and children and many more studies are being conducted, the issue of adult literacy has gone unnoticed and hence the hit that it may taken during the pandemic is also relatively hidden.

But some studies are being completed and the initial data from these is shocking, though hardly unexpected. The gap between the rich and poor countries is believed to have expanded. Exactly by how much would become clear when a report by UNESCO is released next week. Also, there has been enough anecdotal evidence and media reports on the impact of pandemic on rural and indigenous populations as well as people with disabilities who have been hit much harder than others.

Overall, two things were clear even before the pandemic. UNESCO had warned in its last report that even in terms of youth literacy rate, the world would miss its SDG target as only 94 pc of youth likely to be literate by 2030 and this figure declines to 90 pc for the adults. Once again, the figure is scarier for the low-income nations where less than 70 pc of adults and slightly more than 80 pc of youth aged 15 to 24 years are projected to have basic literacy skills by 2030. Exactly by how more will this target be missed is a conjecture right now, but hundreds of millions of adults are likely to remain outside education in 2030, and perhaps forever.



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