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15 May 2015

Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good? By Sobhi Tawil and Rita Locatelli

By Sobhi Tawil and Rita Locatelli, UNESCO Education Research and Foresight.

rethinking edRethinking Education: Towards a global common good? is being released by UNESCO just as the international education and development community formulates the global framework of Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The publication is the result of the work of the Senior Experts’ Group established by the Director-General of UNESCO to examine the purpose and organization of education in a world of increasing complexity and contradiction.

Rethinking Education thus identifies issues likely to affect the organization of learning. These include the recognition, validation and assessment of learning in a context of growing mobility of persons across borders, occupations, educational institutions and learning spaces. They include the challenges of identity formation inherent to social and civic learning in a plural and interconnected world. It also examines issues related to the governance of education, and in particular the principle of education as a public good. It is intended as a call for dialogue with the aim to stimulate public policy debate on foundational principles for education in a changing context of learning.

Reaffirming a humanistic approach to education

In doing so, Rethinking Education recalls and re-contextualizes a humanistic approach to education. It argues that there is a need to go beyond the strictly utilitarian vision and the human capital approach that characterize much of the international discourse and that narrow the policy focus to the role of education in socio-economic development. It argues for an integrated approach to education that gives equal importance to the economic, social, cultural and civic dimensions of learning as reflected in the four pillars of learning to know, to do, to be and to live together (Delors et al., 1996). The integrated approach articulated in the four pillars, however, is fundamentally under threat in the context of current societal challenges, and particularly,  learning to be and to live together.

A humanistic approach to education and development reaffirms a set of core ethical principles that should constitute the foundation of an integrated approach to knowledge, learning and development. These principles include: respect for life and human dignity; equal rights and social justice; respect for cultural diversity, as well as a sense of shared responsibility and a commitment to international solidarity, all of which are fundamental aspects of our common humanity. It is an approach that recognizes the diversity of knowledge systems, worldviews, and conceptions of well-being as a source of wealth. It recognizes the diversity of lived realities while reaffirming a common core of universal values. A humanistic approach implies a central concern for sustainable human and social development, in which the fundamental purpose of education should be to sustain and enhance the dignity, capacity and welfare of the human person in relation to others and to nature.

A humanistic approach has a central policy concern for equity. This implies inclusive policy-making, as well as transparency and accountability in the provision of meaningful learning opportunities for all. It further implies recognizing the importance of non-formal and less institutionalized educational spaces in a lifelong learning framework. It also recognizes the foundational importance of the teaching profession at all levels. The role of educators is critical as guides who enable learners to develop and advance through the constantly expanding maze of knowledge throughout their lives. In order to ensure this, teachers and educators need to be offered more attractive, motivating and stable living and working conditions, including salaries and career prospects.

Reframing the principle of education as a public good

In terms of governance, Rethinking Education suggests that the principle of education as a public good is now under strain in a changing global context for learning.

This is partly the result of the rapid development of digital technologies that is transforming the educational landscape. It has weakened the monopoly of formal education institutions on the creation, transmission and validation of knowledge. This transformation requires a more fluid approach to learning as a continuum, in which schooling and formal education institutions interact more closely with other less formalized educational experiences from early childhood throughout life. How can the principle of education as a public good be reinterpreted in this emerging context of networks of learning spaces and in a lifelong learning perspective?

The strain on the principle of education as a public good is also the consequence of the growing scale and diversification of the engagement of non-state actors at all levels of education and training. This is partly the result of growing demand for voice, participation and accountability in public affairs. But it is also in response to the need to relieve pressures on public financing given the spectacular expansion of access to all levels of formal education witnessed worldwide over the past two decades. The diversification of stakeholders in education is challenging the role of the state in the regulation of education as a public good. This is particularly so when education is treated as a commodity and opened to the market and to profit-making interests, with the risk of exacerbating inequalities.

Education as a common good?

Bearing in mind these changes, Rethinking Education proposes that education be considered as a global common good. Considering education as a common good is an attempt to go beyond the dichotomy of the public and the private. It reaffirms the collective dimension of education as a shared social endeavor rather than an individualistic socio-economic ‘investment’. It is not only the quality of life of individuals and families that is the focus, but also the quality of life that humans hold in common. It is not the intrinsic characteristics of these goods that make them common, but the significance they embody for the community in question. Moreover, beyond the educational services/goods available, the process of defining what kind of education is to be provided and for what kind of society is, in itself, a common good. Rather than notions of co-ownership, the idea of the common good implies joint action. This implies an inclusive and participatory process of public policy formulation and implementation with shared responsibility and commitment to solidarity. Going further, both education and knowledge may be considered to be common goods. Indeed, the process of creation, transmission, acquisition, validation and use of knowledge is common to all people as a collective societal endeavor. How then can the roles and responsibilities of diverse stakeholders in the regulation of education and knowledge as common goods be reframed at local, national and global levels?

>>> Rethinking Education: Towards a global common good? is available here for download.

Sobhi Tawil is a Senior Programme Specialist, at Education Research and Foresight (ERF), UNESCO. Email:

Rita Locatelli is a Research Assistant at ERF, UNESCO. Email:



NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.



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