SDG 4 Education: Necessary ambition or misplaced folly?

Published on 11 May 2016

Sarabe Chan

Alumni Advisory Committee Member

Chimwemwe Manyozo

MA Student, Development Studies

Many have criticised the Sustainable Development Goals for being overly broad and unrealistic. While a certain degree of ambition is necessary to drive changes, the fourth SDG (SDG4) on education already bears ten targets, touching on issues such as primary and secondary education, vocational and technical training, teacher training and so forth.

While the goal attempts to address the important issues, it also faces the risk of lacking focus. The topic of providing ‘free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education’ was highlighted on last Thursday’s Sussex Development Lecture delivered by Dr Jordan Naido, Director of Education 2030 Support and Coordination at UNESCO. A simple question filled the room that evening – is the SDG4 achievable?

SDGs – An expansion of MDGs?

Dr Naido began the evening with an overview of the SDGs as an expansion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDGs are more inclusive and universal since they target countries in the global north as well as the global south. The issue of poverty and inequality, for example, is as much of a phenomenon in the UK as it is in developing countries, although the benchmarks for measurement vary. The agenda was also developed through an extensive consultation process, as compared to the MDGs that took a top-down approach by mostly technocrats.

At the very least, deciding on the SDGs agenda provided a platform for different voices to be incorporated, such as those from civil society organisations. Further to that, the SDGs emphasise national ownership and provide the flexibility for countries to adopt issues that are important in their contexts. The question, however, lies in how the flexibility of the goals fit with the pre-set targets and indicators.

Dr Naido gave an honest account of the common public criticisms of the SDGs, such as them being too broad, unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Commentators have also pointed out the cost-ineffectiveness and lack of accountability of the SDGs. As the speaker himself expressed, “As a grand plan, the SDGs are an ambitious attempt. But whether the ambitious plan succeeds or not is another issue.”

Education as a Stand-alone Goal

If we narrow down our focus of the 169 targets and look closely at the SDG4 on education, a compelling case is presented. The overall objective is to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. From this goal alone, there are already several cases worthy of deeper exploration, namely, what does inclusivity cover? How can quality education be achieved? And what is the deal with lifelong learning opportunities?

First of all, the fact that education gets a stand-alone goal presents how important it is in both developed and developing nations. The My World Global Survey results showed that the youth selected education as a critical issue that must be included in the SDGs. The Muscat Agreement, World Education Forum and Incheon Declaration have also demonstrated the firm commitment of the global education community to one single, renewed education agenda. Further action includes the Education 2030 Framework for Action adopted on November 2015, which provides a practical guidance on how SDG4 can be operationalised. Indeed, SDG4 should be applauded for aiming to be more holistic, ambitious, transformative and universal, while aligning with efforts internationally, regionally, nationally and locally.

Despite the optimism, they also have also received harsh critics for being overly ambitious, vague and lacking in focus. Just like the SDGs as a whole, SDG4’s targets face the risk being too costly and lacks clarity on their progress review.

In particular, the focus on lifelong learning is worth further discussion.

Expanded Ambition: Lifelong Learning and Universal Secondary Education

While the MDG2 on education was about achieving universal primary education, the SDG4 is taking a further step to expand this vision, jumping from achieving primary education to promoting lifelong learning opportunities. Dr Naido argued that lifelong learning and universal secondary education are critical for breaking the cycle of poverty, which is largely valid from an ideological perspective. However, there are several issues here.

First, this goal is unlikely to garner political commitment and cooperation from countries that are already facing challenges with free primary education. Take Malawi for example, when primary school fees were abolished in 1994, school enrolment increased but education quality was affected due of the lack of facilities, teaching materials and trained teachers to satisfy the growth in enrolment numbers. Spending per student fell by 25% despite the overall increase in education budget, so as a result, nearly 300,000 students dropped out during their first year (Tafirenyika, 2010).

How does a country commit to free secondary education, if its primary education system has not yet matured? The inclusive element of setting up the SDGs agenda should certainly be commended, but if the SDGs are really an expansion of the MDGs, then surely there must be lessons that can be drawn from past experience, especially regarding universal primary education.

Second, the discussion around free education would be more meaningful if education quality, which lies within the education system, was addressed. Despite the last target of the SDG4 aiming to increase the supply of qualified teachers through international cooperation for teacher trainer, the root causes of low education quality and its systematic challenges are not acknowledged. For example, in Cambodia, low teacher salaries (within the civil service salary scheme as part of the wider corrupt system) is the main impetus for teachers to force their own public school students to pay for private tutoring after classes (Dawson, 2010).

This has also taken away the traditionally high societal status of teachers in Cambodian society. Again the discussion falls back to the education system – how do we tackle this systematic challenge? What about measures in enhancing teachers’ status in developing countries and attracting talents into the education sector? How can capacity building be done? The quality and system of primary education must be dealt with before this goal advances a step further, which is why ambition should be channelled towards ‘getting the basics right’.

Third, it would have been even more interesting if the presentation addressed the role that private education and non-profit organisations could play in SDG4.

Another Issue – Financing for Education

Financing for education was another key issue brought up in the lecture. Dr Naidoo debunked two fallacies that 1) money doesn’t matter, and 2) increased finances lead to reliable indicators. The fact is that more funds than before will be needed for countries to achieve the SDG4, thus the national governments and the international community need to develop ways to ensure sustainable funding of education. Also, an increase in education funding is not going to automatically lead to a good outcome, as there must be strong accountability mechanisms to ensure finances are used for their intended purpose.

While national governments should, ideally speaking, bear the funding responsibilities, some countries are still largely depend on Overseas Development Assistance to fund their education budget. Some audience raised a critical point that in this contemporary era, more and more countries in the global north spend a huge chunk of their national budgets on defence to protect their citizens from terrorism and other threats. Even two out of four strategic objectives of the Department for International Development’s new aid strategy are about global peace strengthening and crisis response. How then, do we ensure that the education sector gets adequate financing in a context of other national priorities of donor countries? But issues are interlinked, so it is not unrealistic to hope that good education can resolve other issues in the long run.

Ambition is necessary in issues of priority

The attempt to be inclusive in setting up the SDGs should be applauded, and the emphasis on national ownership is critical, which is why this mentality should be carried to the SDG4, such as catering to different countries’ levels of progress and understanding their readiness for universal secondary education. No doubt, ambition in setting targets is necessary to achieve important goals, but they must be focused and achievable. This could involve learning and reflecting from past successes and failures. At the end of the day, education is not just an essential right but a platform that deeply influences a child’s character development and thinking. Addressing critical systematic issues and prioritising on getting the basics right can make a difference to the childhood of many.


  • Dawson, W. (2010). Private tutoring and mass schooling in East Asia: reflections of inequality in Japan, South Korea, and Cambodia. Asia Pacific Education Review , 14-24.
  • Tafirenyika, M. (2010). Abolishing fees boosts African schooling. Retrieved from African Renewal Online
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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