14.08.2014 - Education Sector

Asia-Pacific progressing in education, but still “unfinished business”, UNESCO’s Education chief says

©UNESCO/Sirisak ChaiyasookUNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Qian Tang at the Asia-Pacific Regional Education Conference (APREC) held in Bangkok

Since the Education for All (EFA) goals were established in 2000, the Asia-Pacific region has made tremendous strides in education, but while it's important to recognize successes, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Qian Tang, says there is no time for complacency, with much "unfinished business" to tend to.

Mr Tang recently attended the recent Asia-Pacific Regional Education Conference (APREC) held in Bangkok in August, where high-level officials from throughout the region gathered to share EFA experiences as well as agree on priority areas post-2015.

Speaking on the sidelines of APREC, Mr Tang offered his views on the importance of the conference and the need to address disparities between and within countries, while dealing with economic constraints.

What is your assessment of the progress made towards EFA goals in Asia-Pacific?

People have said over the past 10 years or so that Asia is the engine of development for the world. It's similar with education. Education development in Asia-Pacific is in a leading position if you compare it with global development. Traditionally, Asian cultures have made education a priority for family and for society. They have a good tradition, but in the last 15 years, more and more countries, particularly Least Developed Countries have started catching up.

From 1999 to 2011, significant progress has been made toward all six EFA goals in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in universal primary education and gender parity. In the next 15 years, I would like to see the Asia-Pacific region maintain this position to try and lead further development in education, particularly in terms of promoting equity and equality.

Equity and equality – could you discuss those goals in the Asia-Pacific regional context?

I think the biggest challenge is balanced development between countries and also within countries. In this region you have the most developed countries and the least developed. In regional cooperation efforts, developed countries can help the region.

There are also challenges within countries. Shanghai, for example, is more developed than other parts of China. This is also a challenge for national policy-makers – to address the gaps and achieve a balance between different regions.

When you were appointed to the ADG post in 2010, you spoke of how the vision of EFA goals was narrowed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of universal primary education and gender equality. What were the challenges posed by this narrower focus in advancing the education development agenda globally?

In the last few years since I've been the ADG, I've met close to 100 ministers of education. When I met Latin American education ministers, they told me ‘Your MDG [universal primary education] has nothing to do with us because primary education is no longer a challenge for us. It was universalized a long time ago.’ They said, ‘The next time you set up a global goal think about us, think about the relevance to middle-income countries and even OECD countries.’

Similarly, when I spoke to the Secretary of Education of the United States a couple of years ago, he said 'I have a big challenge' – with functional literacy, and equity, even in the United States. We should have an agenda that is universally relevant. That is why we are promoting a holistic approach; we're talking about a lifelong learning process, we're talking about access, equity, quality and lifelong learning – something that's relevant for everyone.

I don't think any country in this world can claim to have reached that goal. That is a very high, but achievable, goal, relevant for everybody, and of course different countries have different capacities.

How have the recent organizational financial challenges affected UNESCO's work in education?

In the last few years, our budget was reduced by 30-40%. But at the same time we have had a surge in additional resources. Most of these financial resources are targeted at the country level by donors. We convinced a lot of donors, countries and members of the private sector that UNESCO is a trusted partner, so we can implement programmes. For example, we have partnered with the Government of Pakistan on the implementation of the Malala Fund for Girls' Education.

[The financial challenges] made us make a greater effort to mobilize extra funds. In the education sector, I'm not worried about the lack of resources; I'm worried about the lack of staff to implement. We have funding coming, but we don't have enough staff. We are a victim of our own success.

Interview carried out by Noel Boivin, UNESCO Bangkok

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