SCO Member States strengthen cooperation in education


Vladimir Norov

On January 24, the SCO countries, like all states around the world, celebrate International Education Day. This day was established on December 3, 2018 at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in recognition of the important role of education in ensuring peace and sustainable development in the world.

  The relevant UN Resolution 73/25 stresses that education can increase individual productivity and economic growth potential, contribute to the eradication of poverty and hunger, and promote health and gender equality.

The document also notes the need for efforts to ensure that all educational institutions, including primary, secondary, university and vocational training, are inclusive and equitable so that everyone can benefit from lifelong learning and thus participate fully in society and contribute to sustainable development.

           UN Member States have designated UNESCO as the specialized UN agency for education, which will promote the annual celebration of the International Day of Education in close cooperation with the major players in the field of education.

It should be noted that before the adoption of this UN resolution, in May 2015 in Incheon (South Korea), the World Education Forum, which brought together over 1600 participants from 160 countries, including more than 120 ministers of education, adopted the Declaration “Education: 2030”, which contained a new vision of education for the next 15 years. In the Declaration, participants built on the advances of the past 15 years (since 2000) in expanding access to education by guaranteeing 12 years of free, state-funded education to provide access to equitable, quality primary and secondary education with a minimum of nine years of compulsory education.

There was also a call for at least one year of free and compulsory quality early childhood education to ensure that all children have access to quality early childhood development, care, and education.

In adopting the 2030 Agenda in September 2015, the global community recognized the fact that education is key to achieving all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Where Goal 4 calls for ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

It can be emphasized that members of the international community, including SCO countries, are almost unanimous in their understanding of the importance of education and, declaring overly ambitious commitments for the medium and long- term, have shown not only their willingness to work together to implement UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, but have also adopted and generally successfully begun to implement national education programs and strategies.

However, much has changed since the beginning of 2020, when the whole world was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, the world education system was dealt a severe blow. In 2020, according to UNESCO, because of the pandemic, most countries announced temporary school closures, affecting over 91% of students worldwide. By April 2020, about 1.6 billion children and young people were out of school.

Experts estimate that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented direct negative impact on all education systems due to school closures and related learning losses.

The pandemic also threatens with even more devastating and long-term consequences for the most vulnerable, especially children who are already facing a learning crisis even before the pandemic.

UNESCO (2019), for example, estimates that even before the pandemic, some 285 million children were not in school at all. And according to the World Bank, more than half of children, or 53% of the total, in low- and middle-income countries could not read or understand a simple text after elementary school, or even after five years or more of schooling.

           At the same time, it is important to note that the countries of the world have greatly intensified their actions to cooperate to overcome the negative effects of the pandemic in the education sector, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

          This was evidenced by UNESCO’s videoconferencing of the Extraordinary Session of the Global Meeting on Education “Education beyond COVID-19” on 22 October 2020, which brought together heads of state and government, ministers of education and international partners from more than 70 countries. 

      UNESCO Member States identified as one of the priority actions to be taken to rebuild the education system in the next 15 months, i.e., by January 2022, the reduction of the “digital divide” that is keeping one third of the world’s students out of education.

In the Declaration, governments and partners pledged to maintain or increase the share of public expenditure on education to at least 4-6% of GDP or 15-20% of public expenditure; help the countries and populations most in need, including those not covered by public programmes.

 When the pandemic began, there was talk of a “first,” a possible “second,” and subsequent “waves” of spread. Now, in some regions, experts and politicians are already claiming the threat of the beginning of the “third” wave of COVID-19.

In the current situation of high-risk of being infected with the coronavirus, the only possible and adequate response of educational institutions worldwide to the external challenge was to switch to distance learning temporarily or completely.

           To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, all SCO Member Governments have initiated and facilitated the transition of educational institutions to online education on an unprecedented scale.

           The first in the world to face the coronavirus, the Chinese government decided to move all classrooms online and launched an unprecedented experiment in online education for schools and institutions of higher learning across the country, reaching nearly 300 million teachers and students.

The results were positive and encouraging – the effectiveness of online learning was almost equal to that of traditional classroom instruction. China’s education sector intends to leverage the strengths of online education to create a more flexible, easily accessible, content-rich continuing education system where learning happens everywhere, anytime, for everyone.

In the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as in Pakistan, the educational process during the pandemic began in broadly similar conditions, with schools and universities temporarily closed. The search for alternative forms of education became widespread. Different kinds of distance learning were used: broadcasting lessons through TV channels, posting video lessons on special platforms, broadcasting lessons via radio, via e-mail, and so forth. Each country tries and chooses the most suitable variant, considering internet access, technical infrastructure, and adaptation of the educational content to distance learning, to make the distance learning process available to pupils and students as soon as possible.

In India, from March 16 to April 14, 2020, all educational institutions in the country were closed. Most of India’s schools and universities continued online learning. India’s Ministry of Human Capital Development released a list of online resources for distance learning in schools and universities with free access.

Most schools, universities and colleges in Russia have switched to distance learning.  In this regard, all face-to-face classes, including lectures, practical and even laboratory classes with virtual counterparts, have been moved to the online environment. According to the Minister of Science and Higher Education at the end of March last year, about 80% of Russian universities switched completely to a distance learning format with students.

During the pandemic in almost all countries of the SCO “family” the field of education has changed dramatically and rapidly. Teachers have had to implement unfamiliar methods of teaching, working with the classroom, and checking students’ knowledge literally on the virtual atmosphere. Parents have had to strike a balance between doing their jobs and helping their children learn. For students it was a real challenge, a stimulus to self-organization and training in the ability to “learn to learn.

At the same time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, SCO Member States are passionately committed to further strengthening educational cooperation in accordance with the Organization’s earlier documents in this area.

During the first organizational meeting of the SCO University Coordinating Council held via video conference on June 30, 2020, the member states discussed cooperation in the field of education considering the ongoing pandemic, as well as the need to identify the most effective areas of joint work to develop online training programs and projects.

            Our countries see in the SCO University a great potential as a reliable platform for training highly qualified personnel in professions of priority interest for economic and social development of the SCO Member States, development of integration processes in the field of education, science, and technology.

            It is important to note that despite the pandemic, cooperation between the SCO Member States in the field of education has not slowed down. For instance, in early December 2020, at the initiative of Russia, the XIII Week of Education of the SCO Member States, “Education Without Borders” (December 1-4, 2020) was held in the format of a videoconference. The opening ceremony of the Week was attended by representatives of the ministries of education (science) of the SCO member countries, and heads of leading universities of the SCO University.

It should be noted that the very theme of the Week – “Education without Borders” sounds highly symbolic in 2020 because from the beginning of the epidemic of coronavirus infection and up to now the whole world, including the SCO countries, live under conditions of periodic quarantines, all kinds of restrictions on freedom of movement and absence of live communication. The SCO Education Week was one of the final events of the busy agenda of Russia’s SCO presidency in 2019-2020.

During the meeting of the Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) of SCO Member States held under the Indian Presidency on November 30, 2020, the Plan of Measures for 2021-2025 on implementation of the Program of Multilateral Trade and Economic Cooperation was approved, which outlined the concrete areas of joint work in the field of education to overcome the negative consequences of the pandemic.

So, the member states intend to cooperate in the sphere of higher, additional professional and secondary professional education by exchanging experience and best practices, aiding in establishing direct contacts between educational institutions of the SCO member states and implementing joint projects, including by considering establishing an Association of Educational Organizations of Secondary Professional Education of the SCO Member States. The Plan provides for joint activities on training of scientific and pedagogical personnel, including in the field of digital and information and communication technologies.

The SCO Member States note that the most important task is to jointly overcome obstacles and barriers of both “physical” and technological nature, to bring cooperation in education to an even higher level in the new, anniversary year of SCO, 2021.

The uniqueness of SCO is that our countries, guided by the principles of “Shanghai spirit”, expressing goodwill, mutual respect, good neighborliness, mutual benefit are trying to share their experience, open new opportunities associated with the use of information and communication technologies, modern methods and methodologies of educational programs aimed at improving the education of our youth.

The SCO Member States realize that in the context of the pandemic, working with youth and developing cooperation in the field of youth education is an important priority. The efforts of our countries are aimed at promoting the physical, mental, and spiritual development of the younger generation of over 800 million people, or half of all young people on the planet, and involving them in ambitious plans for joint development.

            In the Joint Communiqué adopted on November 30, 2020, the SCO Heads of Government noted the importance of consistent implementation of the SCO Heads of State’s Joint Address to Youth and Program of Action to implement its provisions (Qingdao, June 10, 2018) by creating conditions for modern education, training and professional development of youth, greater involvement in entrepreneurship and innovative projects.

Young people, with their energy, innovation, and courageous ideas, are an important pillar for the further development of the SCO in various aspects of its activities. The organization will continue to prioritize strengthening cooperation in education, developing the youth movement, and deepening interaction within the framework of youth policy.

Considering the pandemic, the SCO Secretariat organizes online and offline interactive games “SCO Model”, international youth conferences on “SCO Youth Entrepreneurship: Challenges and New Horizons” and “Development of E-Commerce in the SCO Region” with the participation of school and university students of member countries.

In addition, in 2020, with the support of the SCO Secretariat, the International Technology Transfer Conference, the 2nd Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition, the AGORA: SCOlar Vision Youth Conference, and the opening of the SCO China Technology Transfer Center in Qingdao as a platform for the SCO International Youth Business Incubator initiative were successfully held.

          In summary I want to note that 2020 became time of rethinking of habitual representations and approaches in system of education. The basic driver of this process became the bursting pandemic which has defined several new requirements to life and work of schools, colleges, and universities.

           The crisis, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, came at a moment when most countries’ educational systems, as the latest round of the OECD international student assessment program (PISA) showed, were not ready for the world of digital learning opportunities.

Experts identify three main challenges to distance learning: the experience and skill of teachers in using online systems and online applications; the state of infrastructure readiness, such as Internet connections, bandwidth, and devices; and the evolving mindset of teachers, parents, and students alike.

       Despite the obvious negative effects of the pandemic, it nevertheless provided several opportunities and insights into the urgent need to bridge the digital divide in education in today’s unpredictable world.

Accessible high-speed Internet in schools is an important task that has been talked about for years. Today it has become especially urgent.

Before our eyes, the concept of school education 4.0 is taking shape, like Industry 4.0, which is already being born from the introduction of modern information technology solutions in various spheres of social and economic life of states. The key factors in this symbiosis are the spread of wireless communication, the increased availability of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and other technologies. Education 4.0 should focus on the globalization of knowledge; its goal is to prepare personnel to fill new jobs with high demand in current and future spheres of labor. This requires the use of new technologies and teaching methods, and the development of new personal skills in response to the emergence of new industries̆.

      For example, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and McKinsey China published the report “Skills Transformation in China: The World’s Largest Number of Workers Will Learn for Life” on January 13, 2021. The report noted that as digitalization and automation technology become more popular in China and around the world, millions of workers will urgently need to learn new skills or even change careers. As the trend toward automation and digitalization evolves due to the global response to the COVID-19 epidemic, productivity will become a more important growth driver, and the skills requirements for talent and workers will also change.

Data shows that by 2030, the number of workers in China who will need to change careers could reach 220 million (30% of the total workforce). In an average automation scenario, the demand for physical labor would fall by 18% by 2030 and the demand for technical skills would rise by 51%.

       The SCO adopted, on the sidelines of the Moscow summit on November 10, 2020,the Statement of the Council of Heads of Member States on Cooperation in the Digital Economy noted the importance of strengthening comprehensive cooperation in the digitalization of education. At the same time, the President of Uzbekistan suggested at the summit suggested to develop an SCO Digital Literacy Program aimed at educating the population and training relevant specialists based on agreed curricula.

         Combating the negative consequences of the pandemic allows all our countries to see and realize the enormous potential of cooperation between our countries in the sphere of education, to study and apply the experience of countries, especially the invaluable experience of applying advanced teaching methods, using information and communication technologies, supporting all participants of the educational system: students, their parents, teachers and administration at all levels during the transition to the digital education system. In this regard, the development and adoption of a program of cooperation for the development of online education in the SCO region becomes truly relevant.

       I am sure that the implementation of the agreements reached by the SCO Member States in the sphere of education, as well as the partnership between the SCO and UNESCO, which will only expand and strengthen every year, covering new areas of cooperation, will promote sustainable development of our countries and peoples.

The Writer si the SCO Secretary General