While universal access to education is declared in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, access to education vary greatly across the world. Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all was deemed the fourth most pressing issue worldwide by the UN in 2015. While only two percent of the adult population in Europe and Central Asia were illiterate, one third in Sub-Saharan Africa was the same. Nevertheless, there has been a significant increase of both people in education and people completing primary education since 2000. Around 90 percent of the world’s population had completed a primary education in 2020, whereas 66 percent had attained a secondary education. The numbers were even lower in tertiary education, with around 40 percent of the global population having attained some kind of tertiary education, most of which were women. Adult men are on average more literate than women, reflecting the unequal access to education for women and men in many countries, but the literacy gender gap has shrunk among the world’s younger generations in recent years.
Regional differences in higher education
Even where students having access to educational facilities, there are differences in the quality of the education students are receiving. This is especially visible in higher education. As of 2021, India has more universities than any other country worldwide while having no university in the top of academic rankings. The United States, on the other hand, has a much lower amount of universities but is home to over half of the best 50 academic universities worldwide. Additionally, only five of the top 50 ranked universities in the world were neither in the United States, Australia, or Western Europe. No university from South America or Africa made it to the best ranked universities. Furthermore, public expenditure on higher education varies significantly from country to country: while the Austrian and Danish governments spends 1.6 of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education, the figure was only 0.4 percent in Luxembourg.
The impact of COVID-19
Inequalities in education have furthermore been exacerbated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. School closures kept about 90 percent of all students out of school at some point during the pandemic. More than 1.5 billion students and 630 million teachers were affected during the first months of the pandemic. School closures further exacerbated gender differences as young girls were forced to do more house work while they were out of school, and many continued staying home when schools opened again. Worldwide, nearly one third of young women worldwide were neither in education, employment, nor training, compared to around 16 percent of young men.
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Einar H. Dyvik
Research expert covering Nordics and global data for society, economy, and politics