Universal education or open education opportunities for all?

Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda  Compare 43:6 December 2013
Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda
Compare 43:6 December 2013

Dr Frida Tungaraza

Lecturer, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa

Dr Margaret Sutherland

Lecturer, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK

Dr Niamh Stack

Senior University Teacher, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in Compare [the exclusive right to publish residing with Taylor & Francis, copyright BAICE]. The final version can be found here.


The second Millennium Development Goal (MDG) (UN, 2000) called for universal primary education for all by 2015.  As educators we watch with particular interest as this date draws closer.  It is becoming increasingly clear that while some countries have made encouraging steps forward, the full intention of this goal will not be realised by 2015.  There has been much debate within the field on how to formulate the priorities for the post 2015 agenda.  There is a need to build on what has been achieved and develop workable solutions for real progress (UNESCO, online).  Few would disagree that calling for all children to be in education is a laudable goal.  The problem has been with the implementation of the processes, as difficulties with these have resulted in delays in meeting the 2015 date.

This discussion paper aims to contribute to the debate by questioning the assumption that one shared target is achievable, arguing instead that we need to take into account the diversity of learners, teachers, and societies.  Issues we will raise include:

  1.  Is there a shared understanding of what Universal Education is?
  2. Are current Universal Education systems equitable for all?
  3. Are current Universal Education systems inclusive?

Universal Education

The MDG focused on getting children into formal school and thus little attention was paid to the quality and relevance of the education they received once there, or to whether or not formal education was the only way to achieve the goal.  The conceptualisation of “school” within the discourse has resulted in Western dominated practices and curricula being adopted in countries with differing cultural and historical roots.  Post-colonial theorists have long questioned a uni-dimensional approach to multi-dimensional development issues with Escobar (1995) questioning whether it was this uni-dimensional approach that had hindered development.    A hegemonic approach to education neglects the voices of subaltern people and in doing so excludes indigenous knowledge from the learning process.  McFarlane (2006:1416) contends that knowledge continues to be something that is exported to the Global South and if we are to change this calls for a ‘conception of learning that must be critically reflexive of the power relations between different groups, and that must be able to imagine the possibilities of learning between different contexts in ways that do not conform to historical patterns of colonisation or to contemporary tendencies of aid-based conditionality’. This may go some way to explaining why we have yet to successfully achieve Universal Education.  To be successful the future agenda must take cognition of the need to make a paradigm shift towards a more heterogeneous understanding of education.  

Equitable for all?      

Equity and quality have already been highlighted as central to the post 2015 education agenda (UNESCO, 2013).  Collaborative working to find solutions to trans-national issues seems eminently sensible and yet in reality it can be deeply problematic. Power relationships between people and across all levels and organisations i.e. donor agencies, Governments, school leadership, teachers, pupils, Universities to name but a few, can hinder progress. At the heart of this is the need for human beings to value and respect each other as they collaboratively search for solutions to inequity and social justice.  The post 2015 agenda has to acknowledge the human relational aspects associated with development and this will be crucial if equity is to be at the forefront of change post 2015.


Leaders who will shape the ensuing landscape must consider the fundamental dignity of all people.  How this is actualised in countries will be dependent upon their histories, cultures and understanding but accepting difference as a primary aspect of being human offers a starting point for progression.  Disability is one aspect of human inconsistency and is one that often leads to marginalisation and stigmatisation.  This is true for people in developed as well as developing countries.  A post 2015 educational agenda that considers an inclusive approach to this group of learners may simultaneously deal with issues of ‘social affiliation, community membership and improved student outcomes’ (Toson et al., 2013).  The State of the World’s Children 2013 report (UNICEF, 2013) focused on disability and made for simultaneously uncomfortable and hopeful reading.  On the one hand the report highlighted the considerable discrimination for children with disability and on the other it contained case studies that demonstrated how discrimination could be diminished where “physical, attitudinal and political barriers are dismantled” (UNICEF, 2013:2).  Perhaps the most challenging barrier to overcome in this list will be the attitudinal barrier.  Entrenched views on societal ways of dealing with difference will have to be surmounted.  While legislation and frameworks can support and indeed even enforce certain changes, ultimately it is about individuals’ values and their behaviour within society. Education, in its broadest sense has a role to play in informing and challenging the accepted discriminatory practices and attitudes.


What has happened to date has served some well and further marginalised others.  In planning for post 2015 education, we would argue that it is essential to return to basic principles and ask what we mean by education. Learning is a lifelong process and so to confine our ambitions to formal primary education alone is short sighted.  If our ambition is to provide all children with the education that they need, then how useful is a culturally hegemonic system that stops at the end of primary schooling?   Are we at risk of imposing a top down system with the assumption that the ultimate destinations are white collar jobs and international universities?  The reality is that these destinations are not attractive or open to all learners and this is a lesson we should have already learnt from the complexity of trying to incorporate inclusive practice and pedagogy in education systems in developed countries.  Before we propose making a system universal we need to find one that works for all learners. We need to establish how individualised education in a universal system might work. Perhaps now is the perfect time to stop and ask what kind of global education do our world’s children need and how might this help them build sustainable futures within their own societies be they in developing or developed countries.

Bibliographical Reference     

Escobar, A (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McFarlane, C. (2006) Crossing borders: development, learning and the North-South divide Third World Quarterly 27 (8):1413-1437.Toson, A. L. M.; Burrello, L.C. and Knollman, G. (2013): Educational justice for all: the capability approach and inclusive education leadership, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:5, 490 -506.

United Nations (2000) Millennium Development Goals http://www.un.org/millennium/summit.htm (accessed 28 June 2013).

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (2013) Education for All Global Monitoring Report http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013/ accessed 28 June 2013.

United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (2013) The State of the World’s Children Paris: UN.