How to Make Universal Access to Education a Reality

How to Make Universal Access to Education a Reality

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.”
Kofi Annan

Do you know what this says?

Except for the one or two oddballs among us, none of us can read this script because it is not a human language. It’s Klingon and none of us knows how to read or write in this language (for the record, it says “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. - Barack Obama”).

Now you may think it’s not a big deal that you could not read this. Imagine, however, if you couldn’t read in your native language, or for that matter, any human language. It is not even possible for us to fathom how much our lives would be altered if we couldn’t do something so basic. You wouldn’t be able to read this article, for starters. You wouldn’t be able to network on LinkedIn. You couldn’t read any of your favorite books or send letters and messages to your dearest friends or family. You wouldn’t be able to understand street signs, take advantage of Facebook, or read the news on Social Media. You probably would not even be able to use Social Media.

You would be excluded from innumerable opportunities to improve and enjoy your life simply because you didn’t know how to read. That would be tragic and inhumane.

And yet, this is not just an imagination exercise. This is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world. As I mentioned in my last article, “72 million children in the primary education age (five to 12 years) are not in school, and 759 million adults are illiterate.” According to the Brookings Center for Universal Education, 61 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa will reach adolescence without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Reasons for inequitable access to education

There are many, many complicated reasons why so many children are unable to attend school or receive a quality education. Some of these reasons include:

  • Insufficient supply of schools: many poor countries do not have access to enough money for building and equipping proper schools with materials and teachers.
  • Inability to afford education/Low-value placed on education: in the poorest countries, many people are more concerned with the immediate needs of food, water, shelter and survival than with education, driving individuals into child labor to sustain and support their families. Over 300 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are employed around the world, preventing them from receiving a proper education.
  • Geographical barriers: in many underdeveloped countries, barriers such as walking distance to schools, rough terrain, and transportation insufficiencies prevent many students from attending school
  • Insufficient/Poor Governance: according to a report issued by Transparency International Secretariat, in the countries studied and surveyed, funding for schools was not transparent, external inspections were conducted infrequently, parents in all countries paid registration fees despite the fact that primary school is required to be free, 85% of schools had deficient accounting systems, and many head teachers did not have sufficient training in financial management, despite being responsible for budgets.
  • Insufficient funding/aid for building quality schools: according to Brookings, only 25% of countries spend an adequate amount of money on education, with 25 countries spending 50% or less of the recommended amount.
  • Corruption: according to the World Bank, education typically comprises 14% of a country’s expenditure and is, therefore, highly prone to corruption at all levels. The result of this corruption is overcrowding in substandard schools, or worse, no schools at all.

These are big problems, but I believe that we can solve them and make the world a better place for everyone. There are many emerging models of education delivery which aim to bridge the access gap. Most of these are primarily online.

While online courses have a tremendous role to play in equalizing education access, they suffer from very low completion rate, with some researchers stating that the completion rate is as low as 15%.

I believe that in-person education still holds tremendous value for developing children into fully functional adults. In-person education is where children learn crucial social skills, forge meaningful friendships and relationships, and develop an understanding and appreciation for the views and opinions of others. These experiences and abilities are vital for the development of a more harmonious and humane world wherein every individual has the opportunity for, as Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights aptly puts it, “life, liberty, and security of person.”

A model for making delivery of education more efficient

School utilization is inherently inefficient. A typical school day ranges between 6-8 hours. Outside of those hours, schools sit mostly empty. Even during normal school hours, many schools are underused due to insufficient enrollment.

Another inefficiency is that, although many countries are facing severe shortages of quality teachers, some countries, such as Canada, face a dramatic surplus of teachers. Last year in British Columbia, Canada, 2700 teachers were unemployed with only 800 available teaching positions. Nova Scotia, Canada, produces 3 times as many teachers as it needs yearly, and in Ontario, over a third of graduating teachers were not able to find teaching work.

Yet one more inefficiency is that, while many families cannot afford for their children to leave home and go to school, there are many other people around the world that are willing to spend their extra money on funding education and helping underfunded schools survive.

My idea is to create a blended online/brick-and-mortar platform to match supply with demand in all of these areas and ultimately deliver a high-quality educational experience to students who otherwise would not have received one.

Very roughly speaking, the first step would be to create a coordination center/platform online that will serve the purpose of coordinating all the relevant parties and matching them appropriately. The coordination center would build relationships with under and unutilized schools around the world to place students into.

The next step, after building the coordination center, is to match the supply and demand of various goods and services. There are several parties of people that would be involved in this model:

First, the platform will facilitate teacher staffing and "recruitment" of under-utilized and unutilized schools into this "universal access for education" program. The platform will take in applications from under and unemployed teachers and under-utilized and unutilized schools from around the world. The applicants will be evaluated and vetted based on relevant criteria and qualified teachers would be matched with under and unutilized schools from around the world based on factors such a geographical preference, number of students expected to enroll into the school through the education program, etc.

Second, it will be necessary to identify financial sponsors and foster parents around the world. The platform could reach out to potential sponsors and foster homes through various outreach channels such as email campaigns, advertising, partnerships with crowdfunding agencies and orphanages, etc. The platform would need to secure enough funding to cover the full education costs of the students as well as to compensate reluctant families with the income they may lose by sending their child to school instead of using child labor. The platform will need to identify foster parents to house students at close proximity to the schools.

Third, the platform will identify and match students with sponsors, homes, and schools. Considering that many of these underprivileged students may not have reliable access to the Internet, and would certainly not know that a “platform” that is trying to connect them with education exists, it will be necessary to identify and approach eligible students in a different way. I believe this can be done through reliance on Community Health Workers (CHWs). Many rural and underserved areas around the world receive healthcare services through the utilization of CHWs.

For example, initiatives such as the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign aim to “accelerate the attainment of universal health coverage in rural sub-Saharan Africa by supporting governments, international partners, UN agencies, and national stakeholders dedicated to community health worker scale-up in the context of health systems strengthening.”

In CHW models, such as the one the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign uses (see below), the CHW serves as a direct contact with the recipients of care, while liaising with a supervisor who is a higher authority and source of information and who is also in liaison with other stakeholders such as a community representative and a Primary Health Care facility.

Image source: One Million Health Workers Campaign

These CHWs could be utilized to identify and select eligible students from the populations that they serve and relay this information to the Primary Health Care facility or other governing body, which is in touch with the platform. The platform will then relay the information about the students to sponsors and foster parents to find someone who is willing to pay for that child’s education specifically and someone who is willing to take him or her in and give him or her a home. Once the funding and foster home are secured, the students will be matched with schools based on their foster home location.

As mentioned above, most schools are only used for 6-8 hours a day, while sitting mostly idle and unoccupied the rest of the day. A second school day could be instituted wherein the students participating in this program would attend school in the late afternoon and early evening, once the local students have cleared out. By doing so, no new school buildings would have to be constructed. We can effectively double, or even triple existing school capacity just by having additional school days at different times.

I believe that this model could solve a number of the issues I’ve raised earlier in the article. Corruption and poor governance issues could be solved as only schools/school districts that either have a strong track record of honesty and good governance, or which are in areas where monitoring and good governance is easy to implement will be considered for the program. The issue of insufficient supply of schools could also be solved as these programs will occur only in areas where schools are actually underutilized. The lack of funding for education, as well as the inability for many families to afford education could be solved by securing private funding through financial sponsors to cover the cost of education as well as the opportunity cost to the families who decide to put their children in school rather than send them to work. Finally, geographical barriers preventing children from reaching their schools could be overcome as the foster homes must be located nearby to schools.

As with any idea, implementing this model would present many, many challenges and hurdles. There is the moral issue of separating children from their families. There is the issue of language barriers. Another problem will be in handling immigration-related challenges for all of the children participating in the program.

In my next article, the final one of the series, I will dive more deeply into a viability analysis to identify potential issues and how to solve them. I am also eager to hear from you - what are some of the issues that would arise in trying to implement such a model?

Ensuring that every child has access to a quality education is a daunting task. However, that doesn’t mean that we should not work on solving the issue. Every child deserves to have a chance at realizing their potential and enjoying all the benefits that come with a quality education.

Quite simply,


(It is the right thing to do.)

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