The world needs a better understanding of the key role of education in sustainable development

“Different political, cultural and economic contexts across the world inevitably suggest that humanity may not share the same understanding of what  formal education should entail”

The Sustainable Development Goals were created by the United Nations to mobilise the world’s community in tackling a range of global problems.

‘Quality Education’ is the focus of Goal 4, but the remaining 16 SDGs also have links with education as an essential foundation of some of their targets.

However, there are apparent gaps in our knowledge around the definition and role of education in sustainable development; the links between the education goal and other goals; and the operationalisation of those links to help SDGs achieve their mission in sustainable development globally.

My recent research explores these gaps, highlighting the vague aspects of the definition of education and inconsistencies in the links between the education goal and other goals of the UN, their targets and indicators, which means that aspects of the process of utilising education to achieve sustainable development remain too vague.

For the SDGs to be achieved, stakeholders must work towards clarification of these gaps. This could be done through clarifying, first of all, what is meant by education.

Different political, cultural and economic contexts that exist across the world inevitably suggest that we, as humanity, may not share the same understanding of what education, particularly formal education, should entail. We may also not agree on what a democratic way of organising and delivering it is, so that the right of every human being to education is not violated, or how to ensure and measure quality in education, for example.

Another recommendation for those involved in developing, implementing and evaluating SDG progress that came from the research is the need to integrate education in a more straightforward way in the targets and indicators for all the SDGs. This would clarify the exact ways that everyone who implements these goals on different levels of policymaking could utilise education as a tool for enhancing the implementation of other goals.

While education is explicitly presented as a tool for achieving sustainable development in the SDGs through recognising its important role as a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs, the practicalities of this are not clear, particularly in those SDGs where education is not mentioned explicitly as one of the ways to support the implementation.

For example, SDG 6 ‘Clean water and sanitation’ targets and indicators (or achievement measures) do not mention educating the population regarding preserving water and supporting sanitation. However, targets 6.6, 6.a and 6.b and their indicators would benefit significantly from adding explicit education-based guidelines.

For instance, focusing on relevant training programs, community awareness raising campaigns, and knowledge-exchange events for the community would significantly benefit target 6.b ‘Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management’ with its indicator 6.b.1 ‘Proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management’. Developing specific guidelines for concrete education programs with essential learning outcomes (which, of course, could be adapted to the needs of local contexts) are key.

As the world is almost half-way through the timeframe for achieving the SDGs, there is a need for international policymaking to stream its efforts to promote a world consensus around the meaning and potential of education for sustainable development, and to work out more concrete, practical and consistent ways in which education can support and facilitate sustainable development.

The UN’s ‘orchestration’ of aworld consensus is needed around the meaning and role of education in sustainable development, and there is a prime role for academic research, in collaboration with stakeholders, in developing these.

Upcoming international events facilitated by the UN for the review of the SDGs can maximise the work of countries towards achieving the SDGs by 2030 through working out such concrete avenues for using education as an indispensable tool in this process.

About the author: Iryna Kushnir works as a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. She previously worked at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield in the UK. She also completed her PhD at Edinburgh. In addition to Iryna’s academic work, a wider societal impact of her work is in co-establishing and co-developing the Ukrainian Education Research Association which has become the biggest national research association in Ukraine and a hub for education research and quality. The research which forms the basis of this article has been published in the Journal of Research in International Education.

Contact Iryna at and follow at @IrynaKushnir7 on Twitter