Education as a pillar of the 2030 Agenda. Evolution and perspectives in the context of the Covid-19 crisis

Josep M. Vilalta and Pastora Martínez-Samper

“Education is the point at which we decide if we love the world enough to take responsibility for it”, wrote Hannah Arendt more than 60 years ago. Education as a responsibility towards others and the planet on which we live. In short, this is the concept of quality education promoted by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. An international political agenda, approved by the United Nations in 2015, that takes a comprehensive approach to tackling the main global challenges we face as individuals and communities.

Article originally published at ​Revista Idees (03/02/2021)

Quality education as a tool for progress and a pillar of the 2030 Agenda

The Agenda is structured around seventeen economic, social and environmental Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. A three-pronged indissoluble approach with seventeen indissoluble and interrelated SDGs; some of which cannot be understood in isolation. And among the seventeen, number four seeks to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. This SDG focused on quality education, is the driving force behind the other sixteen because, without its achievement, it will be difficult to aspire to a global citizenship capable of understanding a changing and strained world.

The 2030 Agenda also relies on education as the most powerful tool for personal and collective progress, one that allows us to build more prosperous, educated and just societies. Note how, beyond SDG 4 itself, education is necessary to achieve many of the other goals set out in the Agenda. In fact, sustainability cannot be effective if it is not made into a paradigm by raising awareness and training everybody on the planet. The same can be said for building more just, supportive societies that recognise the equality of all people, or the advancement of a sustainable and innovative economy.

There is nothing new in seeing education on the international political agenda, but the 2030 Agenda emphasises the importance of its quality. What’s more, in the words of Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, for the first time, the aim is to “move beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on learning environments and new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity”. Also, for the first time, the scope of education is understood to be universal and constant throughout people’s lives. And so, inclusive and equitable access to quality higher education has been included as one of the goal’s targets.

The 2030 Agenda doesn’t forget the teaching profession either. Teachers —in the broadest sense of the word— are presented as key players in the transformation of the citizenship, as facilitators of a learning that understands diversity and develops the skills required to protect the environment and ensure peaceful coexistence. A veritable statement of intent. For this reason, the foundational report for the quality education SDG, “Rethinking Education. Towards a global common good?” (UNESCO, 2015, in Catalan), points out that we must work with teaching teams to improve their qualifications, increase their autonomy and enhance their professional and employment status.

All these elements present quality education as a common good. A common good that goes hand-in-hand with one of the cornerstones of the 2030 Agenda: knowledge. A knowledge shared in schools and universities and transformed into innovations and solutions for communities; knowledge that is generated in academia but also in other environments, such as hospitals, museums, companies and public administrations. In recent years, knowledge has played a strategic role in the progress of societies and economies. We aspire to live in a knowledge society. The Agenda recognises this and advocates the dissemination of knowledge in all spheres, making it available to all so that it does not become a new source of power for the few or a key factor in inequalities between advanced and decapitalised countries.

In short, the 2030 Agenda challenges us to achieve equitable access to a quality education (formal, informal and professional) for all (children, young people and adults) during all stages of life. According to estimates by the Global Education Monitoring Report, meeting this challenge will require a political will that will need to materialise in a global investment of 340 billion US dollars per year between 2015 and 2030. It is a challenge that is both global and local, and a goal that we are still far from achieving.

The evolution of education systems: between improvement and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic

Despite all the advances of recent decades, one aspect that continues to characterise education worldwide is inequality; the unequal access to education fuelled by numerous other iniquities. Thus, while in global terms 88% of children complete primary education, according to UNESCO’s Scoping Progress in Education report, in Sub-Saharan African countries like Malawi, Senegal or Chad, the percentage is lower than 25%. Similar asymmetries exist for secondary and tertiary education.

This geographical inequality between countries is often further exacerbated by factors such as average household income, gender, and race. In fact, only two out of three countries in the world have achieved gender parity in primary education. And, for example, the percentage of children schooled in Laos ranges from 96% for affluent families to 28% for the most impoverished families. But beyond percentages, we mustn’t forget that each figure represents a person. And more than 50 million children do not go to school.

However, there have been significant improvements since the 2030 Agenda was approved. In 2019, the pace of access to primary education was progressing fast enough to make it one of the few Agenda 2030 goals on target to be achieved, according to a report from independent scientists The Future is now. Science for achieving sustainable development.

But then, from out of nowhere, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared, and everything stopped. In March 2020, schools, colleges and universities began to close because of the public health crisis. More than 1.5 billion students were affected, which translates to more than 90% of the global total according to data from the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020.

The global teaching community is concerned about the repercussions of the closures, which could potentially cause learning losses for the school-age generation and increase the inequalities mentioned above. This concern is reflected in a recent report by ECLAC and UNICEF, (in Spanish) which highlights the link between housing deprivation and the violation of other children’s rights, such as having a suitable space to study and rest, for the more than 80 million children and adolescents living in urban areas of Latin America.

In an attempt to limit the damage caused by the school closures, alternative methodologies for remote emergency teaching were immediately put in place. But their success depended on the region and educational level, and curricula, support methods and learning evaluation techniques also had to be adapted. The role of teaching staff and families has been fundamental to this adaptation process and the response to the pandemic in general. Yet, on many occasions, these teams and people have found themselves without the necessary tools, training, and support to face this radical change in their daily lives.

Thus, without exception, a global socio-health crisis has generated unprecedented stress in education systems. COVID-19 has exposed an educational reality with numerous shortcomings, many of which have already been identified in the 2030 Agenda. But the pandemic has also given rise to several initiatives that provided the necessary response and essential advances in record time. Unfortunately, we still have no idea when this stress will be relieved.

Education in Catalonia in the context of the 2030 Agenda

In Catalonia, the pandemic took hold amid a process to implement the 2030 Agenda throughout the region and across all sectors, including education.

At the end of 2019, the Government of Catalonia approved the National Plan for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Catalonia, which has been adopted and implemented by all the Government’s Ministries. With regard to the SDG for quality education, the Plan comprises a total of 81 commitments that cover all levels of education and all actors in the system. This comprehensive set of commitments is designed to address several shortcomings, such as guaranteeing education for 0 to 3 year-olds and reducing school segregation. It also aims to improve certain aspects that have gained relevance with the onset of the pandemic, such as equipping all students with digital skills and insisting on co-education at all levels.

But this work isn’t restricted to a ministerial level. Catalan schools and universities are also incorporating the 2030 Agenda into their road maps to meet the targets set by SDG 4 and the other sustainable development goals.

In this aspect, the input of the Catalan university system has been particularly notable. From work started in 2017 by the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) to compile all the initiatives linked to the SDG’s, to closing 2020 with the approval of the 2030 Agenda Action Plan by the Inter-university Council of Catalonia (CIC). The action plan aims to accelerate the incorporation of the 2030 Agenda into the Catalan university system. It was devised through collaboration between the different agents in the system, going beyond the 12 universities to include other agencies and research centres, and is articulated in 5 dimensions:

Strategy and governance
Education and teaching
Research and transfer
Commitment to society
Campus initiatives.

A systemic action plan currently without precedent anywhere else world. In a similar vein, also notable is the ongoing work being done by the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) which is jointly chaired and managed by ACUP and UNESCO.

These plans complement each other when addressing the seventeen SDGs. Firstly, they seek to address the needs of our education system. Some of these shortcomings are summarised in the diagnosis prepared by the Advisory Council for the Sustainable Development of Catalonia (CADS) in 2016, which included fifteen priorities ranging from ensuring the quality of compulsory education and the equity of the system to universalising the completion of secondary studies. And there are other studies, like The University Pathway: Access, learning conditions, expectations and returns from university studies (Via Universitària: Accés, condicions d’aprenentatge, expectatives i retorns dels estudis universitaris) (2017-2019), in Catalan, which found that just 10.5% of the students studying within the network of Catalan language universities (Xarxa Vives) come from families where the education and employment level of both parents is low. Secondly, the plans go some way to addressing the trends amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the digital transformation of the education sector.

The reality of the education system in Catalonia is complex, and its shortcomings, strengths and priorities for the future should be analysed in great detail. One such analysis is included in an article on The emergence of educational transformation (in Catalan), recently published by the directors of the Jaume Bofill Foundation’s Educational Yearbooks. The authors argue that education must be made a top political priority in our country and that we must progress to a new educational paradigm that, above all, focuses on learning and learners. This priority must translate to a sustained increase in funding, as Catalonia currently lags behind most other European countries when it comes to the public funding of education. The increase should allow for spending on education to reach 5% of GDP within a decade.

Education and culture come in to play as essential vectors for progress and well-being; helping to build citizenship and lay the groundwork for a shared public ethic

Furthermore, according to the authors of the article, there are four spheres of educational transformation: the educational model, equity, professionals and the governance of the system. The transformation should make it possible to guarantee, as a matter of priority, education for 0-3 year-olds; significantly reduce school segregation; tackle school drop-out rates; support the initial and continuous professional development of teachers; increase and improve lifelong learning; empower teaching teams and schools (providing management skills and greater autonomy); foster young talent, and promote education on sustainable development and the 2030 Agenda at all times. It is a proposal for action entirely in line with the National Plan for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Catalonia mentioned above.

Quality education for social transformation

Beyond the pandemic, however, the world has faced far-reaching challenges and radical transformations in recent years: the global challenge of sustainability and the fight against climate change for one, but also the transformation of economies and the world of work, the need for global governance and citizenship, the crises in liberal democracies and the rise of populism and fascism, as well as radical transformations in the technological field, such as digitisation, artificial intelligence and advances in biomedicine or new materials that will involve rethinking the world as we know it today.

From this perspective, once again, education and culture come in to play as essential vectors for progress and well-being; helping to build citizenship and lay the groundwork for a shared public ethic. Quality education as a shared common good. An education that generates talent and knows how to improve and seek new pathways to collective progress. In this context, we find the proposals made by UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education in its document Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action (in Spanish) to be extremely relevant. They are:

  • Commit to strengthening education as a common good. Education as a bulwark against inequalities.
  • Expand the definition of the right to education so that it addresses the importance of connectivity and access to knowledge and information.
  • Value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.
  • Promote student, youth and children’s participation and rights.
  • Protect the social spaces provided by schools as we transform education. The school as a physical space is indispensable.
  • Make free and open source technologies available to teachers and students.
  • Ensure scientific literacy within the curriculum. Encourage deep reflection on curricula, particularly as we struggle against the denial of scientific knowledge and actively fight misinformation.
  • Protect domestic and international financing of public education.
  • Advance global solidarity to end current levels of inequality. Renew commitments to international cooperation and multilateralism.

Despite the current situation, despite the pandemic and the widespread crisis, the diagnosis for education systems is clear. Various committees, associations and governments have put forward multiple proposals to improve the education of the citizenship. And the ideas within them have become increasingly ambitious in terms of population size, educational levels and actors involved. If we love the world enough, we have ten years to make them a reality.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government