Access to education and knowledge remains very unequal throughout the world, despite notable progress from primary level through to higher education (percentages of children in or outside full-time education, illiteracy, education spending). There are fierce arguments between those who consider education to be a public good and those who see it as a commercial service. Higher education and research are experiencing rapid expansion in numbers of students, teachers and researchers, in a context of strong competition between universities and regions.

Despite notable progress over the last four decades, access to knowledge remains very uneven across the world and is affected by an individual’s wealth, place of residence, sex, mother tongue, disability, migrant status and situations of conflict.

While the great majority of children of primary school age attend school (91 % of children worldwide, 80 % in sub-Saharan Africa), over half of children do not have basic reading skills. In Africa, this figure rises to 87 %, particularly because local languages are used far less in teaching than the colonial languages. One in three of the world’s children does not complete basic secondary education and more than one in two does not finish high school. Fewer than one in five countries provides twelve years of free, compulsory schooling (one in two countries in Latin America), while the right to education is enforceable in only 55 % of countries.

School completion rate by education level in a sampling of countries, 2011-2017

Source: Unesco,

Comment: To complement the preceding maps on the differences in school attendance according to level, this diagram shows evidence of a dual inequality of opportunity: in addition to the fact that the rate of attendance falls off the farther students advance in their school career, in many countries of the South those in school do not complete their studies. More than 4 children out of 5 do not finish secondary school in 22 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Enrolment in higher education has risen strongly since 2000, particularly in East and South-East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, but have stagnated in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, after rising in the late twentieth century. But there are still major variations in the proportion of children in school. Less than a third of young people go into higher education in developing countries, as opposed to three-quarters in developed countries. There are also significant differences in illiteracy rates (14 % of adults and over 40 % in low-income countries).

Out-of-school rate by education level, 2011-2017 

Source: Unesco, 

Comment: UNESCO statistics show gaps in the many cases where the international organization has not obtained national data. The set of three maps shows an increase in the out-of-school rate throughout the school years, as well as persistent strong regional inequalities. At primary level, the out-of-school rate is generally high except in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa (especially the Sahel) and, more locally, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At upper secondary level, it is only in Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. that rates of school attendance are high. These rates are lowest in Africa and South and South East Asia.

Global public good or commercial service?

Across the world, education is being taken out of the public sector and undergoing institutional dismantling and changes in actors and scales. At a time when the globalized postindustrial economy depends on the knowledge and adaptiveness of a highly-skilled and mobile workforce, requiring major investment in both human beings and equipment, public expenditure on education has tended to stagnate since the 1990s and remains below 5 % of GDP. The proportion of education spending provided by households also varies (18 % in high income countries, 25 % in countries of intermediate income, 33 % in low income countries).

Debates rage between the proponents of modernization, who regard teaching as a service negotiable at the WTO (World Trade Organization), and those who want to see it preserved as a public good. The expansion of parental choice in primary and secondary schooling, reinforced by the expansion of private education, is supposed to improve the functioning of the education system and to foster the progress of students. However, it increases inequality without improving the average quality of education in schools, particularly given the proliferation of commercial companies charging fees that may be prohibitive fees (private support for schools, educational technologies, school catering, etc.).

The major universities are reforming their syllabuses, funding, outcomes and relations with local, national and regional authorities and business. New actors traditionally seen as external to the higher education sector (businesses, professional organizations, foundations) are becoming involved in the running of universities and developing an offer of profitable private courses, blurring the distinction between public and private. Universities are positioned within the global labor market by means of accreditation systems (quality marks) and grading (performance hierarchies) conducted by public and private bodies with varying levels of independence and transparency. Rankings published by universities (Shanghai, Leiden), commercial companies (QS), media organizations (Times Higher Education), regional organizations (U-Multirank funded by the European Union) and mobile, knowledge-based professions (jurists, financiers, IT specialists) are established using different criteria that are often subject to criticism, all of which indicate the current supremacy and attractiveness of universities in the United States.

A global knowledge-based society

The numbers of students going abroad to study has remained constant since the 1990s. In 2015, nearly 2 % of students around the world (some 3 million) and over 5 % of students from sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia studied abroad, usually in another country in their region, but also, and increasingly, outside their home region.

This readiness to travel among students, teaching staff and researchers is encouraged by the growth of partnerships between higher education institutions, the creation of networks and strategic alliances and the opening of campuses outside the university’s home country. Many institutions are developing courses in several languages, including English (the new lingua franca), and offer distance learning and qualifications, notably via the internet. UNESCO and regional organizations are encouraging regional harmonization (transferable credits, degree recognition). There is stiff competition between institutions at both the national and international level, resulting in international rankings and a presence at trade fairs.

The three main international higher education conferences and expos, 2017-2018

Sources: APAIE, ; EAIE, ; NAFSA ,

Comment: The maps show the participation of those involved in higher education at three international shows held in 2017 and 2018. This practice reveals a lucrative market based partly on partnerships and student mobility. Apart from the constant and substantial participation of actors from the so-called early industrialized countries, a certain regionalization is evident: people from the region where the organization in question is holding its expo are regularly in the majority.

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