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Global Governance of Improving Education for a More Equitable World

Kazuo Kuroda

Waseda University


With socioeconomic globalization, many issues now cross the national borders. It has become impossible for single nations to recognize the full picture of these cross-border issues, find solutions and seek appropriate directions by implementing their policies alone. In order to address these issues, various frameworks of global governance are being formulated by the international community, composed of various actors including international organizations, multilateral cooperation entities, private enterprises and civil society, to identify issues, find solutions and seek appropriate directions. Education, which used to be discussed and conducted by individual states, is also a subject of global governance today.

This short essay first categorizes the historical but diversified activities of global governance into four types to show how they function in the field of education, using specific examples, and consider issues and directions. Based on these understandings, it discusses implications for the educational development of developing countries and for the future of international cooperation and global governance of education.


  1. Types of global governance in education and the current situation
  2. Global governance by formulating principles through international laws, conventions and charters (traditional approach)

The earliest efforts of the international community to promote global governance in the field of education was to clarify the principles of education, in the Constitution of UNESCO and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that education is a basic human right and that education contributes to achieving peace. The principle of education as a basic human right has been repeatedly confirmed by various legal frameworks, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and has had a significant impact on domestic laws and educational policies of many nations. Aside from these global agreements, there are also regional legal agreements on education such as the Asia-Pacif Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education.


  1. Global governance by developing and proposing new internationally influential concepts (traditional and contemporary approach)

There are also many cases in which international organizations and other actors have taken initiatives to propose new concepts and directions of education to the international community. Although these are not legally binding as international conventions, they have had a significant impact on educational policies and reforms of various countries by creating political trends. The “life-long education” and “recurrent education” proposed by UNESCO and OECD in the 1960s are good examples from earlier days.

The World Bank and other organizations conducted research on “rates of return to investment in education” from the 1980s to the 1990s and empirically showed that investment in primary education has high social returns. This greatly contributed to securing educational funds to promote Education for All (EFA). On the other hand, while much focus was given to EFA, the policies on higher education in developing countries were criticized and lost their direction in the 1990’s. To address this, a new direction was suggested in Higher Education in Developing Countries – Peril and Promise, published by the joint task force of the World Bank and UNESCO in 2000.

In the 2000s, the governments of developing countries and experts on development economics expressed concerns that quantitative expansion of education might not always contribute to economic growth. Eric Hanushek demonstrated that improvement in the quality of education, not quantity, promotes economic growth. His findings had a significant impact on the policy trend surrounding the MDG Goal 2 on universal primary education completion and the discussions on the formulations of SDG Goal 4 on quality education. The specific policies to promote EFA and the MDG2 were discussed and consolidated, mainly based on the UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Reports and various other reports on the research conducted by UNICEF and the World Bank. Also, the various ideas and recommendations proposed in the UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Reports have had significant contributions and influences on global trend of educational policies.

The so-called “Delors Report,” entitled Learning: The Treasure Within, published in 1996 by UNESCO, showed basic concepts for education in the 21st century. In 2009, “ATC21s,” an international research project established at the University of Melbourne, proposed the concept of “21st-century skills.” Both have come to provide the bases for discussion on formulating future visions of national educational policies in many countries. Just last year in 2021, UNESCO’s International Commission on the Future of Education published the report titled Reimaging our futures together: A new social contract for education and I am sure that this will have a significant impact on educational policies in many countries in the near future.


  1. Global governance by building consensus on the goals of international policies through policy dialogues at international conferences and multilateral fora and by formulating frameworks for policy and financial cooperation (contemporary approach)

With regard to global governance in education, the most commonly used approach today is to build consensus on the international goals on education and to formulate frameworks for policy and financial cooperation. An earlier example is the International Conference on Education, a forum of education ministers, which was held in Geneva to bring about international cooperation in education with the purpose of maintaining and achieving peace between the two great wars in the 20th century.

After WWII, in the early 1960s, when many former colonies became independent, UNESCO held regional conferences in Asia, Africa and Latin America and established action plans (Karachi Plan, Addis Ababa Plan and Santiago Plan), centering on promoting Universal Primary Education (UPE) concept. The policies of UPE lost momentum in the 1970s and 1980s when the world was going through the Structural Adjustment, but in 1990, UPE was once again recognized by the international community, this time as EFA, when the World Conference on Education for All was jointly held by UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF and UNDP in Jomtien, Thailand. The Jomtien Declaration adopted at the conference provided a framework for international cooperation in education for developing countries. In 2000, the “Dakar Framework for Action” was adopted at the World Education Forum held in Dakar. In the same year, the Millennium Summit of the United Nations was held to formulate the Millennium Development Goals and succeeded in bringing together the international community to promote EFA. These became the most conspicuous action of global governance in education. In the 2000s, EFA was discussed at various G8 summit meetings, including the ones held in Genoa, Kananaskis, St. Petersburg, and L’Aquila. The declarations of the summit meetings showed the international community’s commitment to pursue these goals. The Fast Track Initiative (later renamed the Global Partnership for Education) was launched as a mechanism to provide financial assistance to promote EFA and to achieve the MDG2.

In addition to EFA, there were other actions made by the international community. For example, in 1994, UNESCO organized the World Conference on Special Needs Education, which adopted the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action, proposing “inclusive education” as a principle for formulating educational policies. This principle had a significant impact on the educational policies of many countries later. It does not only apply for special needs education but also for other areas to promote inclusion of various diversities in education. These historical experiences of formulating Jomtien, Dakar and MDGs frameworks certainly became the foundation of SDG4, which is the ongoing and most powerful global governance framework of education in the contemporary world.

This type of approach based on international conferences includes not only global but also regional initiatives. There have been many regional actions, particularly in Europe with the development of the European Community. In Asia, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) and ASEAN have launched various frameworks for regional governance, which have grown significantly over the recent years. ASEAN University Network (AUN) (1995), AUN Quality Assurance Framework (1998), AUN/SEED-Net (2003), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community to be launched in 2015 are some examples. In the Asia-Pacific region as well, various initiatives have been taken, including the educational activities of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (1989), University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP, 1991) and its Credit Transfer System (UCTS, 1999), and the Asia Pacific Quality Network (2003). In recent years, education has been included in the agenda of ASEAN+3 (1997-), the East Asia Summit (2005-), the Japan-China-South Korea Summit (2008-) and other fora, which have produced concrete outcomes such as the Higher Education Policy Dialogue (2009-) of ASEAN+3 and the CAMPUS Asia (2012-), which is a joint initiative of Japan, China and South Korea. In this way, many of the frameworks of regional governance in education in Asia are targeting higher education, including promoting educational exchanges in Asia; quality assurance of higher education in the region; and establishing a credit transfer system to promote academic mobility in the region.


  1. Global governance by establishing international indicators and standards and conducting monitoring (emerging approach)

In recent years, establishing international educational indicators and standards to be monitored has come to play a greater role in the global governance in education. Needless to say, UNESCO and other organizations have collected and published educational statistics over the years, and international statistics in education have always been important tools of global governance. Based on these statistics, new indicators have been created and used for policymaking of EFA and the MDGs/SDGs, including the EFA Development Index, the MDGs Official Indicators, the Human Development Index and SDG 4 Indicators. These tools have also played significant roles in global governance.

With the advent of TIMMS, PIRLS and then OECD’s PISA, international comparison of students’ performances has become possible, and their impact on the educational policies of each country has grown tremendously. PISA in particular has had much greater success than OECD had expected, as a tool of global governance in education. With the success, PISA has played a leading role in the discussions to formulate new educational policies, proposing PISA-type academic standards and policies to narrow the gaps in learning achievements. OECD has also promoted developing quantitative monitoring tools such as PIAAC and AHELO, targeting adults and higher education. These have also played major roles in the international community. Similar actions are being taken at regional levels. In Africa, academic achievement tests such as SACMEQ and PASEC are expanding as the number of participating countries increases. The results of these tests are used by member states for formulating educational policies and for implementing educational reforms. In Southeast Asia, SEAMEO-INNOTECH and UNICEF have launched a regional system to monitor academic achievements.

This approach of global governance by establishing indicators and standards is now used not only for studying academic achievements but also for evaluating educational policies. Based on the policy research on the countries which have achieved EFA, the FTI Indicative Framework was once established and utilized to provide criteria for mobilizing FTI resources as benchmarks for the educational financial administrations of developing countries. SABER, on which the World Bank has been working with various international partners, also aims to introduce standards to benchmark and evaluate educational policies.

Furthermore, it is interesting that the world university rankings issued by the Times Higher Education Supplement, QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and others, based on their own calculations, have a major impact not only on determining directions at the university-institutional level but also on developing policies at the national governmental level.


  1. Issues of global governance in education and developing countries
  2. Characteristics of global governance in education

This section discusses the characteristics of global governance in education, which has evolved in various ways as stated above.

First, the formulation of global governance in education affects globalization in two ways: one is to accelerate globalization and the other is to control globalization. Global governance accelerates unification and standardization, which is an intrinsic characteristic of globalization, but global governance can also function to narrow disparities and secure diversities by promoting EFA and inclusive education and therefore can reduce the adverse effects of globalization.

Second, regional governance, which is progressing in parallel with the formulation of global governance, also works in two ways: one that complements global governance and the other that functions as a countermeasure against domination of global governance. Regional conferences held by UNESCO in preparation for world conferences are an example of the complementing function. On the other hand, regional cross-border issues, which can be overlooked in global arenas, may be addressed by establishing new regional frameworks, such as the frameworks for higher education established in Asia and in Europe.

Third, there are legitimate and illegitimate governance tools. In many cases of global governance in education, international organizations established jointly by sovereign countries take initiatives. Such global governance, which undergoes the formal processes of concluding conventions and establishing consensus at international conferences and other fora, impacts the educational policies of each country as well as educational cooperation. On the other hand, the “world university rankings” developed by private companies or individual universities and the “21st-century skills” proposed by a university research team supported by private companies have also come to have an enormous influence on global policymaking in education.

Fourth, indicators have become extremely important in global governance. EFA and the MDGs/SDGs have become the most important frameworks for global governance in education. It is widely recognized in the international community that EFA and the MDGs have succeeded because they clarified the targets and indicators to be achieved. This recognition has greatly impacted on the formulation of SDGs. It is also recognized that the impact of PISA and that of university rankings have become bigger than initially expected because these also show quantitative indicators. With regard to global governance in education, in addition to the traditional approach of “Governance by Ideas” to formulate principles and trends, we must recognize the growing impact of “Governance by Numbers” to set target indicators and standards and to propose quantitative policy tools for monitoring in order to formulate frameworks for sustainable policymaking and financial cooperation. At the same time, there have also been deep-seated criticisms against the formulation of indicators and quantifications, saying that such a trend may distort policies and have an adverse impact on education because there are important educational aspects that cannot be quantified. When we face these concerns, we can point out the importance of taking the traditional approach of formulating principles and trends together with the new approach of global governance in education, explaining the usefulness of categorized indicators such as SABER to evaluate policy processes. The education policymakers of each country, however, must recognize the limitations of the approaches taken by the international community, even though indicators are used to clarify the situation. Considering the division of roles, the policymakers of each country may choose to focus on their agenda, particularly the quality of education.


  1. Suggestions for developing countries

What are the impacts and issues of global governance in education on the educational development of developing countries?

First, global governance has supported and promoted educational development in developing countries by establishing the recognition that education is a basic human right and by positioning education as an important sector for socio-economic development. This is, without doubt, a positive achievement of global governance in education. Questions, however, remain. Have the governments of developing countries, civil society and educators been able to participate in the process of formulating global governance in education? Have the educational needs and opinions of developing countries been reflected in the process of formulating global governance? Malawi, for example, accepted the global policy of promoting universal primary education by making it free just after the Jomtien Conference. As a result, with the rapid expansion of the enrolment in primary education, the quality of education dropped significantly. This case shows that global governance is not held accountable for its results.

In order to address these issues and questions, it is necessary to invite active participation of the governments of developing countries and civil society in the process of formulating global governance and to communicate the local educational needs and opinions to the international community. For this purpose, the international community must also make sure to devise appropriate processes. Regional governance must be actively promoted, too, as it is relatively easier for developing countries to participate in the formulation process. Regional governance can not only complement global governance but also function as a countermeasure against domination of global governance. Furthermore, developing countries must consider how to selectively use the approaches of global governance in determining and implementing their national policies.


III. SDG4 and Global Governance of Education

SDGs are the ongoing and most powerful global governance framework aimed at tackling the world’s most pressing challenges. Based in part on the successes and failures of the MDGs, the SDGs put forth an ambitious new development agenda for 2015-2030. One major departure from the MDGs was the focus on both developed and developing countries, recognizing that all countries are both affected by and responsible for solving the global issues we face. Resultingly, all 193 member states of the United Nations have adopted the SDGs and agreed to reach the goals by 2030 and this historical advancement makes SDGs real “global” governance framework. With a focus on monitoring and progress as the key to achieving the goals, each of the 17 goals are defined by a number of targets (169 in all), which are further defined by measurable indicators (232 in all).

Of the 17 goals, SDG4 focuses on education, aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. The focus on educational quality and equality may be direct extensions of the shortcomings of the MDGs. However, SDG4 can also be considered as a product of the diverse theoretical and historical traditions that are the foundation of the global governance of education.

As a consequence of the unprecedented movement of people and advancement of the global economy, we live in an age in which the educational issues of one country influence other countries, with developed and developing countries alike facing common issues in education. Thus, education is now considered an issue to be dealt with collaboratively by global society, with the country as the unit of basic efforts. We, comparative educationists, should recognize these trends and transformation of global society and integrate the perspective of global governance of education in our research and teaching so that we can effectively contribute to “Improving Education for a More Equitable World”.