The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) regional offices for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published the results of a regional assessment of progress towards SDG 4 (quality education). The report highlights the urgent need for more investment and social participation to enable a systemic transformation of education.

The publication underscores that while there have been regional and country-specific “improvements and encouraging achievements” in some indicators, progress in many areas slowed down in recent years or remained stagnant. Noting that since 2015, 15 of the 33 countries in the region have reduced their public spending on education, it warns that many of the SDG 4 targets will not be achieved “if the direction of education policies and resource allocation does not change.”

The report outlines the socioeconomic context for the “educational crisis” faced by the region, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It notes that in 2020, LAC experienced its worst economic recession since 1900, with a drop in GDP of 6.8% and increases in the extreme poverty rate to 11.4% and in the poverty rate to 33%.

Against this backdrop, the report highlights five educational trends observed in LAC over the 2015-2021 period.

Compliance with the 2030 goals was not assured even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and much less so today.

First, educational levels of the population continued to grow, including adult literacy levels and the highest educational level achieved by the population. For example, in the last ten years, the number of illiterate people fell by 7.7 million, although in rural areas 12.8% of the young and adult population are still illiterate.

Second, improvements in some educational indicators went hand-in-hand with a reduction in inequalities. For instance, access to pre-primary education (from three years of age to the start of primary school) has increased, especially in rural areas and among the poor. By 2019, the gross enrollment rate in pre-primary education was 77.5%. At the same time, despite increases in enrollment in early childhood education (between zero and two years of age), by 2019, only 18.6% of children in that age group had access to early learning programmes.

Third, progress slowed down on some indicators that had been improving in recent decades. For example, between 2015 and 2020, secondary education completion rates increased by 1.9% for lower secondary education and by 2.1% for upper secondary education, compared to 6.1% and 6% respective increases in the period from 2010-2015.

The fourth trend reveals stagnation of progress on key indicators such as access to primary and secondary education and the quality of learning. According to an ECLAC press release, in the 2015-2020 period, the percentage of the out-of-school population in primary and secondary education remained “virtually unchanged.” It is estimated that in 2019, some 10.4 million children and young people were excluded from access to primary and secondary education. Student learning, in part due to the pandemic, also failed to improve in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science.

Fifth, gaps in some areas of tertiary education increased. Expansion in tertiary education, which incorporated 17 million students over the last twenty years, has been uneven, with access in rural areas increasing only slightly between 2015 and 2020. The gender gap in access to tertiary education widened: by 2020, the gross enrollment rate in higher education was 61.7% for women and 46.8% for men, compared to an almost equal distribution in 2000. 

The report is a key regional input for the Transforming Education Summit, convening in New York, US, from 16-19 September 2022. The summit is expected to take stock of the efforts needed to make up for pandemic-related learning losses, reimagine education systems for the world of today and tomorrow, and revitalize national and global efforts to achieve SDG 4. [Publication: Education in Latin America and the Caribbean at a Crossroads: Regional Monitoring Report SDG 4 – Education 2030] [ECLAC Press Release]