What’s Trending in Global Education Diplomacy

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Written by Nicole Goldin

While education has for years been at the forefront of the global development and social agendas, its place on the diplomatic agenda has arguably been less prominent.  As such, ’Education Diplomacy’ is an idea whose time has come.  Similar to the successful use of diplomatic initiatives to address global concerns such as health or financial inclusion, ‘Education Diplomacy’, is an emerging approach to bring public and private stakeholders together in dialogue, partnership and negotiation to advance policy solutions that promote inclusive, equitable and quality learning outcomes for the world’s children and youth.

As I recently discussed on a panel at the Institute of the Center for Education Diplomacy, we need to act fast to serve this largest generation of young people in human history. Global economic, demographic, social, cultural, political and technological trends are rapidly shaping our lives in dramatic ways.  The “how” and “what” of learning and earning has arguably never been more dynamic, and the consequences for education diplomacy arguably never so stark.  Of course, no two classrooms, schools, local contexts are exactly alike. However, these macro global trends do have several shared micro implications worth exploring.

The positive impacts of education—especially for girls—on health, economic growth, governance, inequality and peace outcomes are well-proven.  Despite progress, particularly at the primary level, hundreds of millions of children and youth—mostly girls—remain out of school, do not complete secondary education (much less obtain any vocational or higher education) or do not leave education with the competencies and knowledge to get a job. In fact, today’s youth are experiencing the greatest unemployment crisis in recent history; resulting in part from unprecedented skills gaps.  In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 4 asks nations to “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” As we seek to advance education and learning, we must acknowledge that while education drives development, global trends and development drive education.

So, what’s happening? In terms of trends, population is certainly a factor.  We are living in the peak youth era, with more than half the world’s population under 30. While parts of the world are aging, most low and middle income and emerging market countries will remain young for decades.  Africa alone will be home to more than 450 million youth aged 15-24—nearly double the current cohort—by 2050.  This means education systems need to plan for scale to absorb an ever-growing headcount. It also means that the pace at which workers will join the labor force is unlikely to slow down for some time.  In fact, the World Bank reports that over the next 10 years at least, 5 million new jobs a month need to be created to absorb new entrants. At the same time, globalization, rapid urbanization and massive migration (including those forcibly displaced by humanitarian crises, wars, or natural disasters) impact educational needs and what children and youth will have to know to succeed in learning and life.  Two thirds of the world’s citizens will live in cities by 2050.

Technological trends are also glaring. The impact of the digital age on education can be seen as two-fold. Mobile, internet, gaming, blockchain and other technological hardware and software are the basis for new teaching platforms, educational delivery, credentialing or student engagement.  In addition to affecting how kids may learn, technology is also affecting what kids should learn.  With the rise of more advanced manufacturing and the spread of mobile apps, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence (AI), the skills and competencies that made one successful in yesteryears are no longer enough in many parts of the world.  And the pace of change may be faster than even the skeptics (like me) care to admit.

These forces are also giving rise to another macro trend with implications for education: the changing nature of work. The shortage of jobs means people are entering the informal sector, engaging in self-employment or taking an entrepreneurial path.  At the same time, online or digital work, and entrepreneurial needs and aspirations, supported by the diffusion of technology and innovation, has given rise to gig and sharing economies and task-based or micro work.  Globalization means marketplaces, commerce and work are both local and global.

What does this all mean in terms of education diplomacy, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where the significant majority of the world’s children and youth live? There are five policy initiatives education diplomats and stakeholders could prioritize:

  1. Consolidate the gains made at the primary level, promote transition to and completion of secondary education and expand access to vocational or higher educational opportunities, especially among girls. This means increasing financing for secondary, vocational, tertiary education, and ensuring that schools and systems are responsive to the needs of all children and youth. Education diplomats should also pursue policy and other instruments—such as cash transfers—to incentivize and increase the value proposition of schooling (especially for young women). It also means investing in teachers and teacher training, as well as in capacity and infrastructure of education systems towards scale.
  2. Engage the private sector and make education and training more responsive to trends and relevant to the ‘glocal’ job market to reduce the skills gap and smooth the education to employment pathway. For example, as urban economies are more service oriented, social and soft skills as well as vocational and professional skills are even more requisite for success. As markets become further integrated and international, and as more children and young people are on the move, language skills, resilience and multicultural fluency are increasingly important along with strong fundamentals in literacy and numeracy and technical competencies. To succeed in an increasingly digital world facing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, STEM competencies of science, technology, engineering and math are now must-have. Finally, for those whose schooling is cut short by poverty, early marriage, conflict, or disaster, second chance programs and out of school learning opportunities should be put in place.
  3. Expand experiential, entrepreneurial and leadership education. Children and youth are increasingly likely to end in roles, livelihoods or jobs that require soft life and citizen skills (such as teamwork, grit and communications) as well as applied, business and financial skills (such as customer or client service, marketing, accounting and planning). This could come in the form of curricula reform, even at the secondary level, to introduce civics, leadership content and require such practical skills-based and entrepreneurial education (as was recently done in Rwanda); or in training teachers in more experiential, student-centered pedagogies that move away from rote passive instruction to a more active learning experience.  Similarly, education diplomats should activate young people’s voice and agency in the educational process to better understand and be responsive to what and how they want to learn; promoting retention and results.
  4. Leverage—but not rely on—technology and digital tools. Education in the 21st century could be a radically different experience because of technology. “EdTech” as it’s known opens up a world of possibilities including for example MOOCs, eBook integrated curriculums, cost-effective apps or games that offer interactive and animated content in native languages.  At the same time, technology cannot fix all problems of schools and systems. In addition to digital divides, there are also challenges and risks associated with the diffusion of technology, whether you are in the Ukraine, Uganda or the U.S.—including for example infrastructure or the amplification of inequality.
  5. Ensure education diplomacy actions are data-driven and evidence-informed. Because we cannot manage what we do not measure, efforts should be made to support countries to strengthen evaluation, assessment and advanced metrics for learning outcomes. To be most effective, we need  more information and data on the extent to which students are learning not just participating.  And, we need to better understand with rigorous evaluation what policies, programs, and technologies work (or don’t work), why and under what conditions.

Nelson Mandela inspired the belief that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In these uncertain times, we need education diplomacy that both appreciates global trends and is grounded in local realities to unlock this potential. We need education diplomats at all levels—and in all roles—to come together in partnership to ensure the world’s three billion children and young people receive the education they want and deserve.  If they succeed, so might we all.

About the Author: Dr. Nicole Goldin (@nicolegoldin) is a consulting expert in international development, global trends and youth affairs; as well as Adjunct Professor at George Washington University and Senior Associate (non-resident) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  She served as Senior Advisor during the Obama administration with the State Department and USAID.  She holds a PhD in Economics from SOAS, University of London.