On 15 September 2015, member states attending the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York adopted a new set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. They were the result of an extensive consultation which involved not only governments, but public and private sectors and non-governmental organisations. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets commit signatory countries to making specific progress on issues such as climate change, gender equality and education by 2030. The SDGs came into force a year ago this month.
The UK is one of 193 nation states to have signed up to the agreement, and was initially one of the leading national players, taking a key role in the formulation of some of the goals. However, by the end of negotiations, it was one of the least enthusiastic with former Prime Minister David Cameron keen to reduce the number of commitments. The UK’s interpretation of the goals has been largely focused on support for less developed countries, with responsibility for implementation falling on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for International Development. The International Development Committee last year described the government’s response to the SDGs as ‘insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all’, highlighting ‘a worrying lack of engagement in, or ownership of, the SDGs by departments across Government’.
While the government, in its response to the committee’s report, undertook to ensure all secretaries of state and senior officials engage with the SDGs, the lack of progress to date is concerning since achievement of the goals depends very largely on active engagement and commitment across government departments. One of the most useful aspects of the SDGs, to my mind, is their insistence on cross-sectoral solutions and their recognition that progress against one cannot be made without due consideration of the rest.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 is of particular importance to adult educators and other advocates of lifelong learning since in enjoins UN member states to: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. It commits participating countries to ‘promoting quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’. These, of course, are crucial ambitions in their own right. As the Framework for Action for the implementation of Goal 4 recognizes, there is an urgent need for a new vision for education that is ‘holistic, ambitious and aspirational, leaving no one behind’. The urgency stems from a cocktail of factors, including demographic and environmental change, skills shortages in many countries, increasing automation and rapidly advancing technology. No-one, wherever they live in the world, can anymore expect to flourish in the world by relying simply on the skills they acquired at school.
But education, and lifelong learning in particular, have a special, wider role, too, in virtue of their contribution to a range of other sustainable development agendas, such as poverty, gender equality, health and wellbeing, and the environment. The Framework for Action acknowledges this, noting that education is ‘a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs’. Promoting lifelong learning within the framework of the 2030 agenda implies a cross-sectoral effort which recognizes the interdependence of learning and key concerns around environmental protection, economic growth and social and cultural development. I would argue that the inter-sectoral relevance of lifelong learning makes it the key factor in delivering the sustainable development agenda. No government serious about these ambitions can afford to ignore it.
The 2030 agenda represents an important advocacy opportunity – the chance to demonstrate the wider, inter-sectoral, relevance of lifelong learning, its crucial contribution to a range of agendas, and its essential role in accelerating progress towards all the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For these goals to be reached, a concerted effort must be made to promote good-quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, wherever they learn and at whatever level, and to highlight the wider relevance of lifelong learning. As ever, we must find new, relevant and imaginative ways in which to make our case. In doing so, we also contribute to the wider task of communicating the Sustainable Development Goals more widely and encouraging governments to take greater ownership of them.
It shouldn’t need saying that this is not just a concern for developing countries. The UK is a case in point. Where other developed countries, such as China, have increased investment in lifelong learning, recognizing its importance in giving citizens the skills and attributes they need to flourish in work environments characterized by constant change and upheaval, the UK government had dramatically reduced investment. Since 2010 it has overseen the collapse of part-time higher education (which for the most part engages adults already in work), the almost complete destruction of university lifelong learning, the disappearance of much local authority adult learning provision (as well as of supporting infrastructure such as public libraries), and dramatic cuts to the adult skills budget in further education. Many now predict that the adult skills budget will disappear altogether by the end of the next parliament. MP David Lammy last week told the UK parliament that this budget had been cut by 40 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015, with a 10.8 per cent reduction in 2014-15 alone. By any measure, we are some way from the provision of ‘quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’.
The UK, of course, has led the way in research on the wider benefits of learning, notably through the groundbreaking work of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, at the University of London, and the numerous outputs of NIACE’s 2009 inquiry into lifelong learning, including the influential Learning Through Life, written by Tom Schuller and David Watson. There is much material out there to support efforts to demonstrate the wider relevance and benefits of lifelong learning, and to support advocacy efforts to highlight this wider value and move the provision of quality lifelong learning opportunities for all up the policy agenda. All departments of government in the UK should understand that they have a responsibility with respect to the SDGs. They should also be encouraged to appreciate the inter-sectoral role and reach of lifelong learning in helping deliver them. There is a strong lifelong learning tradition in the UK, even if cuts to public investment have greatly weakened the infrastructure.
Understanding these connections can help us develop a cohesive approach to tackling these issues. Nothing less than a comprehensive strategy for implementation of the goals – with lifelong learning, I would suggest, at its heart – will be necessary in ensuring their success. To date, however, there is little evidence that the goals are being taken seriously in the highest levels of government in the UK, still less that there is an appreciation among ministers and senior civil servants of the potential of lifelong learning. As the year progresses, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the ways in which lifelong learning can contribute to wider agendas related to the 17 SDGs and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about its wider role and value. I hope also to demonstrate the potential of the goals as a tool in national-level advocacy. Ultimately, it is only the engagement and activism of citizens that will prompt politicians to take ownership of this agenda.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are:
1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere
2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages
4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation
10) Reduce inequality within and among countries
11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development