The Role of Education in Shaping a Sustainable Future

Setting the scene: Data from the educational sector


According to statistics from The World Bank, the current enrolment rate for primary education is 89%, whereas the enrolment rate for secondary education amounts to 66%. 

As shown in Figure 1, significant gains have been recorded over the past 20 years in education enrolment. 

Figure 1. Net school enrolment rate
Figure 1. Net school enrolment rate

Nevertheless, according to UIS data, 258 million children and youth are still out-of-school as of 2018. 22% of the total stands for children of primary school age, 24% of lower secondary school age, and finally 54% of upper secondary age. 

UNICEF data identify Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa as the geographical areas with higher percentages of out of school childhood and youth. Indeed, one in every three children is not enrolled in educational programs. Moreover, disparities across gender are also marked with an un-enrolment rate of girls 23% higher than boys. 

Figure 2. Out of school children victims of child labour
Figure 2. Out of school children victims of child labour

Finally, the data identifies a huge gap between out-of-school rates in the poorest and wealthiest countries. Across the world's low-income countries, the upper-secondary out-of-school rate amounts to 59%, whereas high-income nations register a rate of just 6%. 

Normative frameworks in education for sustainable development


We are on the journey for a more sustainable future. A variety of different enablers contribute to sustainable development.

Education has the role of providing skills and knowledge to face global challenges with a more sustainable mindset than the one which created them. This set of skills and competencies will play a central part in overcoming hurdles such as climate change, environmental degradation, social inequalities and poverty. 

In short, sustainable development must encompass education, and education must integrate sustainable development.

Political regulations and financial incentives do not suffice to shape a more sustainable society. A switch in our way of thinking and acting is needed as well. Indeed, the concept of education for sustainable development (ESD) derived from the need for education to address global environmental challenges facing the planet.

Shared recognition of ESD as a fundamental pillar for sustainable development can be traced back to three main UN summits on sustainable development:

  1. 1992 - UN Conference on Environment and Development

  1. 2002 - World Summit on Sustainable Development

  1. 2012 - UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Moreover, Article 12 of the Paris Agreement recognises the importance of ESD and, finally, the importance of education for sustainable development is portrayed by the Agenda 2030. Sustainable Development Goal 4 strives to: "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all."

Under SDG 4, the following targets have to be achieved by 2030:

  1. Ensure complete free, equitable and quality education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes;
  2. Increase the number of people with relevant skills for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship;
  3. Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development. 

Within the framework developed in 2019 by the United Nations for the implementation of education for sustainable development (ESD), the following priority action areas are identified to support SDG 4: 

  1. Policy support - International and national policies concerning education and sustainable development should include the ESD framework;
  2. Education and Training - Partnerships between institutions and communities should strengthen the whole-institution approach, which focuses on integrating sustainability practices within education and training environments;
  3. Educators - Educators should improve their abilities to enable a kind of learning that leads to transformation;
  4. Youth - Young people should be involved in the process of addressing sustainability challenges as key-change actors;
  5. Local communities - Local communities should represent the setting where actions for sustainable development take place. Therefore, local communities should develop community-based ESD programmes.


Virtuous examples of sustainability integration within education 


Education must cover key issues such as climate change, poverty and sustainable production and consumption. ESD promotes the integration of these topics within learning curricula to prepare students with the right mindset to tackle these problems. 

"ESD aims to produce learning outcomes that include core competencies such as critical and systemic thinking, collaborative decision-making, and taking responsibility for the present and future generations". - UNESCO, 2018.

According to this approach, sustainability performance is determined by the interplay of knowledge and skills, values and motivations, and opportunities. 

To empower people worldwide to take action towards sustainable development, educational institutions should provide students with the fundamental set of skills and competencies of ESD. 

A virtuous example comes from Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. All 25.000 students studying at Radboud are now integrating sustainability within their curriculum, no matter the field. The goal is to encourage students to narrow down sustainability issues within their discipline.  

"The climate crisis is a complex, global problem. That is why we have chosen to have all students think about this problem from their own discipline. All knowledge and research contribute to the solution and a better view of problems." - Daniel Wigboldus, Senior University Executive.


What can businesses do to advance education for sustainable development?


Notwithstanding the responsibility of Governments in assuring high-quality educational systems, businesses can play a significant role too by supporting families and offering training and learning opportunities to workers. Businesses' contribution to supporting education can thus take place at all levels. 

The main actions that companies can implement to contribute to SDG 4 and advance inclusive and quality education for all are:

  • Offer training and learning opportunities to all employees across the business and entire supply chain;

  • Ensure fair living wages and decent working conditions to all employees across the business and entire supply chain to enable them to support the education of their children;

  • Ensure that there is zero child labour across the business' operations and entire supply chain. 

  • Invest in - and implement programmes to support higher education and free access to primary and secondary school.

For the two above, companies should also draw up policies and codes of conduct for suppliers to ensure that fair living wages are paid, and the zero child labour condition is maintained throughout the entire supply chain. Businesses can define stricter supplier standards and introduce monitoring mechanisms together with corrective action to promptly intervene when violations are identified. 

As always, making an effort to enable sustainable development leads to win-win situations. 

The benefits that businesses can derive from promoting education are plenty. 

Employing a skilled and well-educated labour force can boost profitability, innovation, and growth. 

Moreover, learning programmes offered by companies can attract talent, enhancing the skills-set from which businesses can draw.