20 October 2020

COVID-19 And Higher Education: Ensuring Inclusive Continuity of Education through Global Cooperation

UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has forced the global academic community to explore news ways of teaching and learning, including distance and online education. This has proved challenging for both students and educators, who have to deal with the emotional, physical and economic difficulties posed by the illness while doing their part to help curb the spread of the virus.  The future is uncertain for everyone, particularly for millions of students scheduled to graduate this year who will face a world crippled economically by the pandemic. 

In the COVID-19 and higher education series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) talks to students, educators and researchers in different parts of the world to find out how COVID-19 has affected them and how they are coping with the changes. The series also aims to highlight the lessons learned and potential positive outcomes of the global lockdown for higher education.

It is commonly said that a team is only as strong as its weakest player. This is also true in education in the sense that the world is only as educated as its least educated people. Education is crucial for sustainable development at all levels, and no one should be left behind. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that education is anything but equal, as 43 percent of global learners lack access to household internet and over 11 million girls face the risk of never returning to school again. Consequently, it is necessary to take steps to ensure quality and inclusive continuity of learning in order to sustain global development.

Aware of the urgent need to take action in this regard, on 25 September 2020, UNESCO hosted a virtual presentation and discussion on the measures and achievements implemented by its newly launched Global Education Coalition in helping countries ensure education continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event, Education During COVID-19 and Beyond: The Global Education Coalition in Action, was held during the high-level week of the United Nations General Assembly and was hosted by the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, who launched the Global Education Coalition in March this year to respond to the educational challenge of COVID-19, which at its peak kept 1.6 billion learners worldwide outside the classroom. Ms. Azoulay highlighted the importance of keeping students in school during this time, saying that “with ten years to go to reach the goals of the 2030 agenda, reinvesting is not a choice, but a necessity.” 

The conversation was enriched by reports from various heads of state, ministers, private sector representatives and other stakeholders discussing UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition achievements and key takeaways with a focus on rethinking the future of education.

Thus far the coalition had managed to mobilize US$7.5 million from Vodafone to offer free access to education data for 60,000 students and teachers in Samoa, while cellular operator Orange is providing free internet access to accredited educational platforms in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Global Skills Academy was also launched to equip 1 million youth with digital skills and help them secure jobs with coalition  partners in the private sector such as Coursera, Dior, Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, among others. They have also worked alongside WorldSkills International and intergovernmental organizations including ILO, ITU and OECD. The Academy functions in collaboration with UNESCO’s global network of technical and vocational education and training institutions, UNEVOC.

Participants recognized that much work has been done to ensure education continuity during the ongoing pandemic, but they noted there was still much work to do and believe that education must not return to pre-pandemic norms, but rather to a “new normal” that is more accessible and inclusive. They highlighted the digital divide, which overwhelmingly affects developing countries and that its crucial to ensure that all courses and learning materials are available and accessible to all learners everywhere. They agreed that in order for educational systems to survive, they have to be affordable and accessible to all, which will be made possible by multilateral and international cooperation.

The closing remarks by Stefania Gianini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, encapsulated the shared sentiments of participants in the discussion. She expressed that, just like it takes a village to raise a child, “it takes an extended global network village to educate a child and to leave no one behind.”

The conversation ended with a call to action to all stakeholders to work toward building that global network to ensure quality education for all.