The Future of Quality Education in the Asia-Pacific: A Post-Covid Evaluation

Discussions between Arimida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and His Excellency Mohamed Aslam, Minister of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure of the Republic of Maldives. Source: https://twitter.com/UN_Armida

2022 marks the ninth annual Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) which was held March 28th-31st in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2015, the United Nations established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were seen as a universal call to promote peace by reducing poverty, ending hunger, and mitigating harmful climate change effects. At the time of their establishment, the SDGs contained targets to be achieved by 2030. With eight years remaining, the APFSD provides the platform for government officials, international actors, and activists across the Asia-Pacific region to discuss the status of the SDGs and evaluate the progress of the 2030 Agenda, particularly in regard to countries that are most vulnerable, such as Least Developed Countries and Landlocked Developing Countries. This year’s APFSD theme was “Building back better from COVID-19 while advancing the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Asia and the Pacific,” which highlighted regional setbacks created by COVID-19 and examined best future practices and policies for five SGDs: SDG 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 14 (Life below water), 15 (Life on Land), and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). This piece will take a closer look at SDG 4, quality education, and discuss today’s status, current challenges, and good action plans for the future of the Asian-Pacific region. 

Representatives gathered in a conference room during the 2022 Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development in Bangkok, Thailand. From https://twitter.com/UNESCAP
Representatives gathered in a conference room during the 2022 Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: https://twitter.com/UNESCAP

Status of Quality Education

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the education enrolment levels had been increasing throughout the region, an indicator that many countries were making progress towards the 2030 targets. However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling has been regarded as a generational catastrophe and the education sector has not been able to recover as quickly as the production sector. School closures, as well as inadequate reach and quality of remote learning, have caused learning loss at unprecedented levels, requiring major attention and mitigation efforts in the short and medium term. 

School closures lasted for different durations across the region, ranging from approximately one month in Japan to 18 months in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Within the  Asia and Pacific region, Central and South Asia were impacted the most by school shutdowns. This was in part due to the sheer number of students in this region with 43 million students from early childhood education to secondary education required to stay home. 

This is a troubling number considering school closures have a direct impact on early childhood education (ECE), a time-sensitive stage in a child’s socio-emotional development that facilitates physical, cognitive, and motoric development and is fundamental to a healthy and productive life. However, due to the pandemic, 141 million ECE pupils (99 percent) missed out on early instruction in April 2020 and 54 percent could not attend learning centers in November 2020. Furthermore, ECE is often provided by private schools; in some countries nine out of ten ECE schools are private. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), over 55 percent of students in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific subregion attend private pre-primary schools, as well as over 58 percent in South and West Asia. Due to the school’s private nature, its main source of income and investment come from tuition fees. With looming economic hardships brought on by the pandemic, many parents may face limited ability to pay tuition fees, causing children to lose access to ECE.

Students wearing face masks as a precaution against COVID-19 wait at a bus stop in Bengaluru, India, Nov. 30, 2021. Source: www.voanews.com

Current Challenges and Vulnerable Populations

The unprecedented disruption to education systems has had disproportionate negative impacts on female students. An increase in unpaid domestic work and gender-based violence, such as child marriage and teen pregnancy threatens girls’ ability to access and pursue an education. UNICEF estimates that an additional ten million girls in South Asia alone are at risk of childhood marriage. Similarly, UNESCO predicts more than 1.2 million girls (from pre-primary to upper secondary) may drop out or not have access to schooling in countries of the East Asian and Pacific regions due to the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts, including the need to generate income, increased household responsibilities, and increased childcare responsibilities. 

The pandemic has also hindered the education of youths with disabilities. Even prior to COVID-19, youths with severe functional difficulty were more likely to be unenrolled in an education program and more likely to be idle compared to youths without difficulties. Data among 10 countries in Asia and the Pacific found Vietnam and Indonesia to have the largest distinction between functional difficulty and idleness among youths aged 15-24. Youths with disabilities in these countries were twice as likely as non-disabled youths to not be enrolled in schooling. Patterns of inactivity were shown to be more relevant to youths with functional difficulties if they were female or lived in rural areas. On average, rural youths with functional difficulty were more than 1.5 times more likely to be idle than urban youths without difficulty.

Delivering quality education is a serious concern for schools that are adapting to online education or adopting hybrid models. Higher-income countries have pursued online education systems while lower-income countries have sought to utilize televised and radio education (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Mongolia, Indonesia). However, just because these programs have been implemented, it does not necessarily ensure quality education. In Bangladesh, 89 percent of students reported skipping government-provided television lessons despite being aware of their availability. Other factors that impede education include students’ ability to access the internet for prolonged amounts of time, proper support and resources provided by schools, and students dealing with physiological stress and mental health issues that affect the ability to learn. In surveys conducted by UNICEF, Indonesia and Malaysia both reported that over 30 percent of girls participating in online learning struggled with internet access and were unable to consistently attend class. Girls also reported struggling with online learning applications, inability to access materials online, and lack of sufficient support from schools. 

Youths who do not have access to distance education during government-imposed shutdowns are particularly likely to drop out. This has devastating consequences for the East Asia and Pacific region, where only half the population has reliable internet access. Establishing internet infrastructure is a separately massive undertaking, in part because installing traditional broadband connections is costly, and countries often face difficulties in financing the fiber-optic cables required. Furthermore, undeveloped countries are limited by lower purchasing power and private companies often do not have incentives to invest in wireless technology that could spread broadband coverage further, faster, and more cheaply. Lastly, access to digital resources is often limited through copyright regimes and proprietary systems. Most existing digital public goods are not easily accessible because they are often untranslated or require specific infrastructure or software to access them. Nevertheless, progress in connecting remote areas is essential to delivering education opportunities. 

Students in the classroom post-COVID-19, Creator: Kim Jun-boem, Credit: AP, Source: Yonhap

Going Forward

In the short term, it is urgent for schools to pursue reopening in a safe manner and to craft policies that emphasize equality. Education systems need to offer remedial or catch-up learning programs to counteract learning loss caused by school closures and strategies to recover lost time will require creativity and flexibility. Globally, 70 percent of respondents to a joint UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank survey reported having adjusted or planning to adjust their school calendars to extend classroom time. For example, Tajikistan canceled school breaks and Papua New Guinea cut its scheduled breaks in half.

These efforts to recover from lost learning and developmental milestones are key to preventing future dropouts throughout the school trajectory in the medium and long term. Governments need to prioritize pre-primary education and leverage flexible, innovative, and effective early learning programs that extend beyond the walls of the classroom and involve a cross-sectoral of an engaging home or community.

In the longer term, the expansion of the internet to rural areas is critical to connecting students in said areas and those without the ability to attend a physical location on a daily basis. Despite this, COVID-19 has shown a light on the stark digital divide within the Asia Pacific region and grants a  rare opportunity to rethink the conventional structure of the classroom. In an ever-growing digital world, schools can utilize existing technologies to provide relief to teachers that face challenges in overwhelming workloads, adapting to a changing work environment, life fulfillment, and enjoyment; a crucial first step given that quality teachers are a significant first component to delivering quality education. Typically we think of the classroom as a brick-and-mortar institution with one teacher and as many as 30 students. However, imagine an online or hybrid environment where one teacher is able to utilize multiple technologies to perform lesser tasks, giving the teacher more time to create impactful experiences with their students and notice potential mental or wellbeing issues among vulnerable students that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.  While brick-and-mortar schools will still act as a valuable place for children to learn while their parents work, technology gives us the flexibility to explore education structures beyond the traditional classroom experience.

 At this year’s Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development, SDG 4 Profile was released along with the report Building Forward Together – Towards an inclusive and resilient Asia and the Pacific; the latter evaluates the pandemic’s influence and analyzes key factors shaping recovery. During the forum, discussions revolving around SDG 4 were facilitated by government officials, members of the private sector, and civil society and focused on three key themes: Theme 1. Learning Recovery and Addressing the Learning Crisis, Theme 2. Transforming Education Systems, and Theme 3. Increased and better investment in education and enablers for transformation. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, it was concluded that larger portions of a country’s GDP must be allocated to education expenditures, with an immediate need to prioritize school reopenings and the professional development of teachers.  Statements detailing the agreed-upon best policies and profiles for SDG 4, 5, 14, 15, and 17 can be found on the APFSD website

Overall, in order to make up for the learning loss caused by the pandemic, it is critical to ensure that curricula are more robust, relevant, and flexible accompanied by learner-center pedagogies and strengthened formative assessment. Providing quality education has posed challenges and in order to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals for Education in the East Asia and Pacific region, it will be crucial to target the groups COVID-19 has hindered the most- women and adolescent girls, youths with disabilities, and those living in rural regions.

 

 

 

 

Kayla Kingseed hails from the United States and is pursuing her Masters in International Trade Finance and Management at Yonsei GSIS. Her passion lies in international relations and the interaction of socio-economic factors between institutions, policy analytics, and maximizing effective altruism. Kayla comes from a background in financial mathematics and has also worked within the IT sector specializing in cyber security education. She is an avid rock climber, cat lover, and enjoys immersing herself in art, music, and the experience of cuisines from all over the world.

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