Education and the sustainable development goals debate: Student reflections

Education and the Sustainable Development Goals 28 November 2016, 4.00 PM – 28 November 2016, 6.00 PM: Simon McGrath, Leon Tikly and Michael Crossley

Reflections from Marcia Shah

marcias-picMarcia Shah has recently defended her doctoral thesis, which investigated teachers’ perspectives on upgrading to degree status in Trinidad and Tobago. In this post she reflects on the recent CIRE research debate and its implications for improving the quality of education.

Throughout this debate, these prominent academics engaged the audience in thinking critically about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this blog, I reflect upon the aspects of the debate which I found particular affinity with.

Professor Tikly provided a brief historical overview, which identified education as a basic human right, since the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Professor McGrath highlighted the ways in which the 1990 World Conference on Education for All, aimed to improve both the quality of education, as well as, to increase access to educational opportunities. However, he illustrated the ways in which the 2000 Dakar Framework reduced these rich discourses around educational quality to issues of access, evident in the six Education for All (EfA) goals and the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The SDGs were then examined in great detail. The three members of the panel affirmed that education is critical if countries are to build their capacity to achieve the other SDGs. Thus, while there are 17 SDGs, the speakers mainly focused on the education goal, SDG four. This goal was accompanied by seven targets and three sub-targets. One of the indicators of quality education, as expressed in target 4.7C, relates to teachers’ qualifications. This target was critically assessed, as it questioned the quality of teacher education, and the impact of teacher training on actual practice, among other things.

Professor Crossley provided intellectual stimulation on the implications of the SDGs in relation to national, regional, and global priorities. He noted the ways in which small states are inevitably ‘forced’ into global agendas, although their unique priorities may be quite different. Therefore he made a very pertinent argument that in order for the SDGs to be more meaningful, countries should adapt these to their unique needs and priorities. In concluding, he argued that there is room for mutual learning between the ‘developing world’ and the ‘developed world,’ as too often policies are dictated by the ‘developed world’ without learning from the rich experiences of the ‘developing world’.

Although this debate lasted for less than two hours, it has certainly left the audience thinking, evaluating, and reflecting upon the discussions, for many more than two hours, many thanks to the speakers for this!


Reflections from recent Masters graduate, Bowen Xu

15123400_1353156641363853_7569529262005242563_oBowen Xu is a recent graduate with a Msc Education (Policy and International Development) from the University of Bristol. He also holds a BA Education (Honours) degree from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include higher education and comparative education in the fast-changing global environment.

I am interested in the intersection of sustainable development and education as I have written an essay for Chinese higher education internationalisation by applying the concept of sustainable development. The seminar held by CIRE on Monday evening provided an excellent opportunity for me to upgrade my understandings about this concept by engaging with different perspectives from speakers and audience in relation to education development.

I believe sustainability presents a difficult standard for countries worldwide,  as achieving triple-sided economic, environmental and socio-cultural advancement simultaneously is absolutely a challenge for every country. So how can we integrate this notion into our educational system?  Perhaps we need some imagination and creativity.

Prof’s Crossley’s work on Small Islands Developing States particularly draws my attention. He argues that countries such as Maldives on the Indian Ocean risk the danger of drowning due to the rising sea level caused by climate change, and this can be disastrous for many places such as Maldives.  Indeed, they face the consequences of global warming and they are the victims of such ecological change. But who is responsible for this? The whole global community, and perhaps bigger economies in the West and Northern hemisphere. I worry about those small islands developing states; in fact, their future is not controlled by themselves, but controlled by others:  this could be the negative discourse of the globalised world.

UN’s sustainable development goals are rather comprehensive in a sense that it includes many different dimensions. Some suggest this could be referred to as an ideal list in which nation states can pick those that are more relevant to themselves. I partially agree with this, because some more powerful countries’ choice might affect how others survive. For example, in the case of global climate change, if the US and China do not reduce the carbon emission, then the world will continue to warm more quickly, and polar bears are going to be struggling with the melting Arctic Sea ice. How does this relate to education? Maybe we need to include those texts into our curriculum to let the next generations know the facts of this over-crowded and over-exploited planet and that they are living in a increasingly fragile earth.

I couldn’t help noticing some audience members and Simon and Leon are interested in the role that a growing China plays in such a scenario. As a Chinese national, I would say China’s development over the past few decades has not been sustainable enough and we need to explore more sustainable development pathways. Some also suggest that China should be invited into the core global community to play a central role in overcoming the new crisis. I think in fact that unchecked capitalism is actually the reason for the unsustainable development we have seen at the current time. We, as human beings, could only take from the earth what we need; the earth can satisfy our needs, but not our greed.  If un-regulated neoliberalism is not restricted and capital interest is flourish without restriction, then we can only see a continuing destruction of our ecological system, a growing gap between rich and poor and the emphasis of private interest over public good. I don’t see these as sustainable. In fact, we are in a crisis of searching for sustainable development and will not be able to bring the true spirit of sustainability into practise until we recognise that nature needs to be respected and human community needs to be more unified than divided. So, there is a problem of sustainable development of education, but it is so much more than that, it is a problem of human, nature and our relationship with each other, with the earth.


CIRE Research Debate – ‘Education and the Sustainable Development Goals’: the case of China

Dini.jpegDini Jiang is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, investigating teacher effectiveness and professional development in China. In this post he reflects on the recent CIRE research debate and the specific case of China.


What are the mechanisms that are driving international development agendas? This was the key question that arose for me from the CIRE research debate about Education and the Sustainable Development Goals. It follows from what I see the distinctive educational needs and policy priorities of mainland China to be and the engagement of these needs and priorities with international development agendas such as the Education for All [EFA], Millennium Development goals [MDGs] and Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. It also arises from how ‘education governance’ (Dale 1997; Robertson & Dale 2013) has shaped the form, pattern and scope of educational policies and practices globally.


Crucially, the educational needs and policy priorities of mainland China are distinct from those of many countries worldwide. As Law (2014) argues, the Chinese government has taken a human capital development approach to coping with the manpower-related challenges of the 21st century, and, through curriculum-making, the state has played an important role in the social distribution of knowledge, skills and dispositions in order to ease the tension between globalisation and nationalism. This key argument can be evidenced by a series of educational reforms undertaken in the mainland Chinese context, including the sushi Jiaoyu – Quality Education Reform – (The Communist Party of China Central Committee & State Council of PRC 1999), the Basic Education Reform (The State Council of PRC 2001) and the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (The Ministry of Education of PRC 2010). In order to address economic, socio-political and educational changes, the Quality Education Reform is essentially concerned with enabling children and adolescents to achieve all-round moral, intellectual and physical development so as to lay the foundations for cultivating socialist siyou xinren – people with socialist ideals, moral virtues, good education and discipline (The Ministry of Education of PRC 1986). The Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development has highlighted guidelines (p.7) of “upholding the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “carrying out the Party’s principles on education” and “promoting the scientific development of education” as well as strategic themes (pp.10-11) of “always putting moral education in the first place”, “emphasising capacity building” and “stressing all-round development”.

Access, quality and equity

These educational needs and priorities in China do, to some extent, engage with international development agendas. Since Dakar, China has improved access to education by expanding lower and upper secondary enrolment; the gross enrolment ratio in lower secondary education increased by at least 27 percentage points from 1999 to 2012, with that in upper secondary education increasing by over 50 percentage points (UNESCO 2015).


Gross enrolment ratios in lower secondary (top) and upper secondary education (bottom), 1999/2012 (UNESCO 2015, p.114)

The concept of ‘quality’ in China is understood broadly in terms of context, inputs, process and outcomes, which reflects the UNESCO (2005) framework for understanding education quality (Thomas et al. 2011). Student academic outcomes in national exams are perceived as the main criteria of quality evaluation, in consideration of the long standing exam-oriented culture and educational competitiveness caused by access expansion. The importance of ‘equity’ is emphasised locally with regards to reducing East/West and urban/rural differences (Thomas 2011). The hukou – household registration – system is the foundation of China’s divisive dualistic (rural and urban) socioeconomic structure and the country’s two classes of citizenship. Its impact on China’s industrialisation, urbanisation and social and spatial stratification has intensified educational inequalities (Chan 2009) and gaps between urban and rural areas in lower secondary school attainment remain (UNESCO 2015).

Lower secondary attainment rate by location, 2000/2010 (UNESCO 2015, p.117)

All of this reflects the significance of ‘context sensitivity’ (Crossley & Watson, 2009) in understanding educational reform and international development.

Education governance frameworks

Returning to the key question – ‘what are the mechanisms that are driving international development agendas?’ – perhaps education governance frameworks (Robertson and Dale 2013) can provide us with further insights into understanding the social justice implications of privatisation. The governance frameworks are comprised of a combination of distinct forms of education activity (funding, provision, ownership, regulation), particular kinds of entities or agents with different interests (state, for-profit/not-for-profit market, community, individual) and different platforms or scales of rule (sub-national, national, supranational). As Robertson and Dale (2013) argue, “education governance innovations demand an explicit engagement with social justice theories, both in themselves, and as offering an opportunity to address issues of social justice that go beyond the re/distribution of education inputs and outputs, important though these are, and which take account of the political and accountability issues raised by globalising of education governance activity” (p. 426).

Chan, K.W. (2009) The Chinese hukou system at 50, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 50 (2), 197-221.
Crossley, M. & Watson, K. (2009) Comparative and international education: policy transfer, context sensitivity and professional development, Oxford Review of Education, 35 (5), 633-649.
Dale, R. (1997) Educational Markets and School Choice, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 18 (3), 451-468.
Law, W. (2014) Understanding China’s curriculum reform for the 21st century, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46 (3), 332-360.
Robertson, S.L. & Dale, R. (2013) The social justice implications of privatisation in education governance frameworks: a relational account, Oxford Review of Education, 39 (4), 426-445.
The Communist Party of China Central Committee & State Council of PRC (1999) Decision concerning the deepening of education reform and the full-scale promotion of quality education.
The Ministry of Education of PRC (1986) Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China.
The Ministry of Education of PRC (2010) Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development.
The State Council of PRC (2001) Decision concerning basic education reform and development.
Thomas, S.M. (2011) Improving Educational Evaluation and Quality in China. ESRC End of Award Report, RES-167-25-0353. Swindon: ESRC.
UNESCO (2005) Education for All: The quality imperative. EFA Global Monitoring Reports.
UNESCO (2015) Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges. EFA Global Monitoring Reports.