When we think of education, we usually associate it with the formal education of children, adolescents, and young people. Although they are the primary beneficiaries of education under international human rights law, adults are also recognised rights-holders. The right to education is, like all other human rights, universal and applies to everyone, irrespective of age.
According to international law, the aims of education include the ‘full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity’ and to ‘enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society’. These aims (and the other aims of education under international law) cannot be met through education delivered exclusively to children. The right to education, therefore, recognises the importance of education as a lifelong process. The early years are considered foundational for lifelong learning, where each level of education lays the building blocks for further education throughout a person’s life.
Adult education and learning is an integral part of the right to education and lifelong learning, and comprises ‘all forms of education and learning that aim to ensure that all adults participate in their societies and the world of work. It denotes the entire body of learning processes, formal, non-formal and informal, whereby those regarded as adults by the society in which they live, develop and enrich their capabilities for living and working, both in their own interests and those of their communities, organisations and societies’ (UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education : Para. 1).
Adults may (re)enter education for a number of reasons, including to:
- replace missed or neglected primary and/or secondary education
- develop basic education skills, such as literacy and numeracy
- develop new vocational skills and expertise to adapt to changing labour market conditions or to change career, or for continued professional development
- continue learning for personal development and leisure
- participate fully in social life and in democratic processes
As well as the benefits accrued from the above, adult education benefits the individual, by:
- being instrumental in the enjoyment of other human rights, for instance, the rights to work, health, and to take part in cultural life and in the conduct of public affairs
- empowering economically and socially marginalised adults to understand, question and transform, through critical awareness, the sources of their marginalisation, including lifting themselves out of poverty
- building the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in society
- facilitating active citizenship
Further, adult education and learning has wider economic, social, political, and cultural benefits, most notably recognised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) which has numerous targets on adult education, and to which all states have committed.
Yet, despite states’ commitments to adult education, efforts to implement and realise the right to education for adolescents, young people, and adults have been neglected. This failure to fully implement adult education compounds historical marginalisation because those most likely to benefit from adult education are those who did not receive primary and/or secondary education in the first place.
At present, adult education, particularly non-formal education, including literacy programmes, is generally the most underfunded level of education with few countries spending the recommended 3% of their national education budget on adult literacy and education programmes (UNESCO  Reading the Past: Writing the Future). As a consequence, adult education and learning is not generally provided for free, the cost of which must be borne by the individual, which acts as a prohibitive barrier in accessing adult education or is a financial burden on already marginalised adults who have to pay to access an education that was previously denied to them.
A fundamental element of the right to education is that it is accessible to all which is why primary and lower secondary education is generally provided for free by most states. The same principle applies to adult education and learning. However, for adults it is different in that in addition to the state, there are market providers (everything from yoga classes and cooking, to computer programming will be offered by private providers), companies train and develop their staff, community organisations create learning opportunities for their members, and the web offers a range of free (MOOCs) and charged for learning programmes. A key responsibility of states is to establish a legal and regulatory framework that secures access to adult education and learning opportunities, particularly for those from marginalised groups. Further, states have obligations under international human rights law in relation to certain forms of adult education and learning.
This page explores the various forms of adult education and lifelong learning for which the state has specific legal obligations under international human rights law, including: fundamental education, basic education, adult literacy programmes, technical and vocational education and training, and higher education. It also explores the right to education of older persons and adult education as articulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
For the international normative framework that provides guiding principles for adult education policy and practice, see UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (2015) and the Belém Framework for Action (2009) from the 6th International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA 6).
Adult education forms an important element of lifelong learning. While ‘lifelong learning’ is not strictly part of the right to education, it is a concept that represents the continuity of the learning and educational process, and this is reflected in the right to education by the fact that it begins at birth and continues throughout life.
The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) provides the following definition:
‘In essence, lifelong learning is founded in the integration of learning and living, covering learning activities for people of all ages (children, young people, adults and elderly, whether girls or boys, women or men), in all life-wide contexts (family, school, community, workplace and so on) and through a variety of modalities (formal, non-formal and informal) that together meet a wide range of learning needs and demands’ (UIL  Literacy & Basic Skills as a Foundation for Lifelong Learning).
For more information, see the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education’s 2016 report on lifelong learning and Report of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century (Delors Commission) to UNESCO (1996) Learning: The Treasure Within.
Around the world, countless people have been - and continue to be - denied their right to free and compulsory primary education. Currently, it is estimated that there are 61 million children out of school at the primary level.
The right to free and compulsory primary education is considered a ‘minimum core obligation’ of the right to education. Effectively, primary education is prioritised given its importance to the individual. Obligations to realise primary education extend beyond provision to primary school-aged students. Under international law, states must also provide education for all those who have missed all or part of their primary education.
Article 4(c) of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) obliges States parties: ‘To encourage and intensify by appropriate methods the education of persons who have not received any primary education or who have not completed the entire primary education course and the continuation of their education’.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) goes further: ‘Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education’ (Article 13(2)(d)).
‘Fundamental education’ (also known as ‘second chance education’) replaces primary education. However the right to fundamental education is far broader in scope. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) provides the following interpretation of fundamental education (General Comment 13 : Para. 24):
‘It should be emphasised that enjoyment of the right to fundamental education is not limited by age or gender; it extends to children, youth and adults, including older persons. Fundamental education, therefore, is an integral component of adult education and lifelong learning. Because fundamental education is a right of all age groups, curricula and delivery systems must be devised which are suitable for students of all ages.’
The last point is crucial. As is the case for the right to education more broadly, the elements of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability also apply to fundamental education (CESCR, General Comment 13: Para. 21). This means that traditional methods and practices of teaching child learners (pedagogies) may need to be substituted for methods and practices that are more appropriate and respectful of adult learners and their already accumulated knowledge and experience.
Both fundamental education and primary education are intended to satisfy ‘basic learning needs’. However, it is important that the distinction is clear. Primary education is delivered to primary school-aged children, usually in formal settings. Fundamental education, on the other hand, is not age specific and therefore its delivery must be adapted to the recipient, and is usually delivered outside of the primary school system, for example through non-formal educational programmes. It should be emphasised that fundamental education, as understood to ensure the satisfaction of basic learning needs, is not just confined to those who have missed primary education, but to anyone whose basic learning needs have not been satisfied (CESCR, General Comment 13: Para. 23).
The term ‘fundamental education’ has fallen out of use in recent times and has been replaced by the nomenclature ‘basic education’. CESCR has noted that fundamental education in general terms corresponds to ‘basic education’, as outlined in the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien Declaration, 1990) (see CESCR, General Comment 13: Para. 22).
The term ‘basic education’ has no strict legal definition - although, in addition to being used synonymously with ‘fundamental education’, it is sometimes used to refer to the combination of early childhood, primary, and lower secondary education.
There are limited references to the right to basic education under international human rights law. The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999) makes provision for access to free basic education (Article 7(2)(c)), as does the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), which requires states to: ‘provide free and compulsory basic education’ (Article 13(3)(a)). In addition, the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ‘Protocol of San Salvador’ uses the term ‘basic education’ instead of ‘fundamental education’: ‘Basic education should be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole cycle of primary instruction’ (1988, Article 13(3)(d)).
In defining ‘fundamental education’, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has stated that in general terms it corresponds to ‘basic education’ as set out in Article 5 of the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien Declaration, 1990) which defines it as action designed to meet ‘basic learning needs’. Article 1 defines basic learning needs as:
'[...] essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning.’
Basic education is an expansive concept which includes the content and learning tools essential to satisfying basic learning needs. The most important component of basic education is primary education (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 13 : Para. 9) but also includes fundamental education (for further information, see UNESCO  Fundamental Education and Basic Education).
In relation to adults, basic education should satisfy basic learning needs and prepare adults for lifelong learning. For example, literacy programmes may be implemented to address low levels of literacy, whereas other learning needs may be met through skills training.
For further information, see UNESCO (2007) Operational Definition Basic Education.
Although literacy is not an explicit part of the right to education, nor a right in itself, literacy is conceptually part of the normative content of the right to primary (and therefore fundamental and basic) education and has been recognised as such by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
In General Comment 13 (1999), CESCR states that primary education must satisfy ‘basic learning needs’, as defined by the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien Declaration, 1990) which includes: ‘essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning’ (Article 1).
The CRC in elaborating the aims of education under Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), states: ‘Education must also be aimed at ensuring that essential life skills are learnt by every child and that no child leaves school without being equipped to face the challenges that he or she can expect to be confronted with in life’, which, at a minimum, includes literacy and numeracy (CRC General Comment 1 : Para. 9).
A compelling argument can be made that literacy is vital to the realisation of the right to education because it is a skill that is foundational for the acquisition of other skills, and without which the aims of education and a good quality education cannot be realised, nor can the continuation of education.
Further, it is inconceivable, given the instrumental importance of education in the modern world, for instance, in finding gainful and decent employment or navigating knowledge and information intensive societies, that literacy would not be part of the content of the right to education.
Without literacy, the right to education and other human rights, are impossible to realise.
Literacy can be defined as follows:
‘[...] a set of skills and practices comprising reading, writing and using numbers as mediated by written materials. [...] Literacy is best understood as a competency: the (cap)ability of putting knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively into action when dealing with (handwritten, printed or digital) text in the context of ever-changing demands’ (UIL  Literacy and Numeracy from a Lifelong Learning Perspective: p. 2).
It should be noted that there is no single agreed upon definition of ‘literacy’. ActionAid and the Global Campaign for Education’s (GCE) functional literacy definition offers a practical and context-bound approach:
‘Literacy is about the acquisition and use of reading, writing and numeracy skills, and thereby the development of active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality. […] Literacy should be seen as a continuous process that requires sustained learning and application. There are no magic lines to cross from illiteracy to literacy’ (GCE  Writing the Wrongs: International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy: p. 3).
For further reading on the definitional issues, see UNESCO (2006) Education for All Global Monitoring Report: Chapter 6: Understanding Literacy.
Literacy programmes can be challenging to implement and their success can be hampered by a number of factors, including a lack of necessary infrastructure, learners’ work commitments, poverty, and conflict. In addition, there is no one-size-fits-all approach which means that the success of programmes depends on how well they respond to local needs and contexts.
ActionAid and GCE have developed a set of benchmarks based on a survey of successful adult literacy programmes, which provides a useful framework for developing adult literacy programmes (see Writing the Wrongs: International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy).
It is estimated that there are 758 million ‘illiterate’ adults across the globe. However, this figure is based on a definition of literacy which delineates ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ based on the ‘ability to read and write, with understanding, a short, simple statement about one’s everyday life’. Based on a functional definition of literacy, it is likely that the true figure is closer to 1.5 billion. In any case, these figures indicate the failure of states to guarantee the right to education for all, particularly the right to free and compulsory primary education and fundamental education. While literacy is not explicitly recognised as part of the right to education, it is integral to achieving the right to education. To this end, international human rights law obligates states to eliminate illiteracy.
Article 28(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) urges States parties to ‘promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world’.
Of the 758 million adults who are considered ‘illiterate’, two-thirds (479 million) are female. For this reason the two foremost human rights treaties that concern women both address low levels of female literacy. Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) guarantees equal opportunities to access ‘programmes of continuing education, including adult and functional literacy programmes, particularly those aimed at reducing, at the earliest possible time, any gap in education existing between men and women.’ Article 12(2)(a) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003) goes further by obligating States parties to take specific positive action to promote literacy among women.
Reference to literacy is also made in regional human rights instruments. Article 13(4)(g) of the African Youth Charter (2006) provides that states shall: ‘Avail multiple access points for education and skills development including opportunities outside of mainstream educational institutions e.g., workplace skills development, distance learning, adult literacy and national youth service programmes.’
Article 41 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004) obligates States Parties to eradicate illiteracy, as does Article 50 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (1948) which also provides that Member States will ‘strengthen adult and vocational education systems’.
Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) includes formal, non-formal, and informal learning concerning ‘those aspects of the educational process involving, in addition to general education, the study of technologies and related sciences, and the acquisition of practical skills, attitudes, understanding and knowledge relating to occupations in various sectors of economic and social life’ (UNESCO Revised Recommendation concerning Technical and Vocational Education ).
TVET is part of both the right to education and the right to work (UNESCO Recommendation concerning Technical and Vocational Education and Training ; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [CESCR], General Comment 13 : Para. 15). Thus, Article 6 of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, ICESCR) concerning the right to work states: ‘The steps to be taken by a State Party to the present Covenant to achieve the full realisation of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programmes, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.’
TVET, an important element of adult education, lifelong learning, and integral to all levels of education, can be an alternative to, or form part of, secondary education: ‘Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education’ (ICESCR, Article 13 (2) (b)).
According to CESCR General Comment 13 (Para. 16), the right to TVET:
- enables students to acquire knowledge and skills which contribute to their personal development, self-reliance, and employability and enhances the productivity of their families and communities, including the state’s economic and social development
- takes account of the educational, cultural and social background of the population concerned; the skills, knowledge and levels of qualification needed in the various sectors of the economy; and occupational health, safety, and welfare
- provides retraining for adults whose current knowledge and skills have become obsolete owing to technological, economic, employment, social, or other changes
- consists of programmes which give students, especially those from developing countries, the opportunity to receive TVET in other states, with a view to the appropriate transfer and adaptation of technology
- consists, in the context of ICESCR’s non-discrimination and equality provisions, of programmes which promote the TVET of women, girls, out-of-school youth, unemployed youth, the children of migrant workers, refugees, persons with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups
For more information, see the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education’s 2012 report on technical and vocational education.
For country profiles on TVET laws and policies, see the UNESCO-UNEVOC World TVET Database.
See also the UNESCO Shanghai Consensus: Recommendations of the Third International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (2012) and the ILO Human Resources Development Recommendation (2004).
The following international human rights instruments include TVET as part of the normative content of the right to education:
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, Articles 6 (2) & 13 (2)(b))
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Article 28 (1)(b)(d))
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979, Article 10(a))
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990, Article 43(1))
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006, Article 24(5))
- UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960, Article 4(a))
- UNESCO Convention on Technical and Vocational Education (1989)
- ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999, Article 7(2)(c))
- ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989, Article 22(1)(2)
In addition, several regional instruments recognise the importance of TVET:
- African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990, Article 11 (3)(b))
- Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003, Article 23(a))
- African Youth Charter (2006, Article 13(4)(e))
- Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004, Article 40(4))
- ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (2012, Article 31(2))
- European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers (1977, Article 14)
- European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992, Article 8 (1)(d))
- European Social Charter (revised) (1996, Articles 10 & 17(1)(a))
- Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000, Article 14 (1))
- Charter of the Organization of American States (1948, Article 50)
- Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ‘Protocol of San Salvador’ (1988, Article 13 (3)(b))
The African Union has also developed a regional Strategy to Revitalize Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in Africa (2007) to support the development of national policies on TVET. Similarly, the European Union has initiated the Copenhagen Process to enhance cooperation to improve the quality and relevance of TVET.
Higher education encompasses ‘all types of education (academic, professional, technical, artistic, pedagogical, long distance learning, etc.) provided by universities, technological institutes, teacher training colleges, etc., which are normally intended for students having completed a secondary education, and whose educational objective is the acquisition of a title, a grade, certificate, or diploma of higher education’ (UNESCO  World Conference on Higher Education).
Higher education is generally only for those who have completed secondary education, meaning that most students in higher education are adults. Higher education programmes are usually specialised and aim to prepare students for specific professional occupations.
Higher education includes short courses as well as bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Institutions of higher education are generally universities and colleges.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) provides that higher education ‘shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education’ (Article 13(2)(c)). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explains in General Comment 13 (1999: Para. 19) that unlike primary and secondary education, ‘higher education is not to be “generally available”, but only available “on the basis of capacity”. The “capacity” of individuals should be assessed by reference to all their relevant expertise and experience’.
The World Declaration on Higher Education (1998), adopted at the UNESCO World Conference on High Education, reaffirms the importance of equity in access to higher education and emphasises that higher education, as a part of lifelong learning, can take part at any time.
UNESCO is currently drafting a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications to promote international cooperation in higher education, including the recognition of qualifications to support academic mobility.
Higher education is sometimes also referred to as tertiary education, however there is a distinction. Tertiary education encompasses most post-secondary education, including some technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as well as higher education. UNESCO provides the following definition:
‘Tertiary education builds on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialised fields of education. It aims at learning at a high level of complexity and specialisation. Tertiary education includes what is commonly understood as academic education but also includes advanced vocational or professional education’ (UIS  International Standard Classification of Education.
Accordingly, tertiary education is an umbrella term that covers TVET and higher education. However, as TVET covers all levels of education, it is not exclusively tertiary.
Within international human rights law, the term tertiary education is generally not used. Rather, instruments refer to technical and vocational education and training and higher education.
The following international human rights instruments include higher education within the right to education provision:
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, Article 13 (2)(c))
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Article 28 (1)(c))
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979, Article 10 (a))
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006, Article 24(5))
A number of regional instruments also recognise higher education as part of the right to education:
- African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990, Article 11 (3)(c))
- African Youth Charter (2006, Article 13 (4) (f))
- ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (2012, Article 31 (2))
- European Social Charter (revised) (1996, Article 10 (1))
- Charter of the Organization of American States (1948, Article 49 (c))
- Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ‘Protocol of San Salvador’ (1988, Article 13 (3)(c))
The right to education is almost always associated with children, however one of the main principles underpinning human rights law is universality. Everyone has the right to education, regardless of age.
In General Comment 20, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) indicates that age falls within the category of ‘other status’ per Article 2 on non-discrimination of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966): ‘Age is a prohibited ground of discrimination in several contexts. The Committee has highlighted the need to address discrimination against unemployed older persons in finding work, or accessing professional training or retraining [...]’ (2009: Para. 29).
On the right to education specifically, CESCR General Comment 6: The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Older Persons (1995) provides that it must be approached in two ways: older people should have access to formal education programmes and training, including university, as well as informal, community-based and recreation-oriented programmes; and, as the transmitters of knowledge, information and tradition, older people should be provided with opportunities to share their knowledge and experience through teaching.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has also explained that States parties’ obligation to eliminate discrimination against women in access to education under Article 10, includes older women: ‘States parties have an obligation to ensure equality of opportunity in the field of education for women of all ages and to ensure that older women have access to adult education and lifelong learning opportunities as well as to the educational information they need for their well-being and that of their families’ (CEDAW General Recommendation 27 : Para. 40).
The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union expressly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of age (2000, Article 21). The Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons (2015, Article 20) goes further, providing that states should ensure the effective exercise of the right to education for older persons including by promoting education and training in the use of information and communication technologies in order to bridge the digital literacy divide.
In addition, there is soft law creating political obligations on states to ensure the right to education of older persons:
- Vienna International Plan of Action on Aging (1982, Recommendations 44-51)
- United Nations Principles for Older Persons (1991, Principles 4 & 16)
- ILO Recommendation concerning Human Resources Development: Education, Training and Lifelong Learning (No. 195) (2004, Article 5 (h) (Note this is limited to ‘older workers’.)
The international community through political development efforts has identified adult education and learning, including adult literacy, as fundamental to achieving sustainable development, including eradicating poverty, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, combatting inequality, and fostering social inclusion.
These commitments to improve access to adult education are particularly important given that it is generally the most underfunded level of education: few countries spend the recommended 3% of their national education budget on adult literacy and education programmes (UNESCO  Reading the Past: Writing the Future). Encouragingly, in the third Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (2016), 57 per cent of the 130 countries sampled stated that they planned to increase funding for adult education and learning in the future.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s (‘Agenda’) standalone goal on education (SDG4), reads: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’ Included as part of this goal are numerous targets and indicators related to adult education, including: technical and vocational education (TVET), non-formal education and adult literacy, and higher education. However, although the goal refers to ‘lifelong learning’, there are no targets or indicators on this important concept, diluting the ambitious and comprehensive nature of the goal.
Technical and vocational education features prominently in the Agenda, both as a target for SDG4 and SDG8 on decent work. This crossover makes sense as TVET empowers individuals with the knowledge and skills to secure decent work and thereby plays a role in reducing inequalities and eradicating poverty. This connection is also reflected in human rights law, where TVET is considered both part of the right to education and the right to work.
The targets on TVET reflect the importance of the human rights principle of non-discrimination through their emphasis on equal access between the genders and the need for disaggregated data for all indicators that track progress for each of the targets. This is because TVET systems can be discriminatory. According to UNESCO they are ‘often gender-biased, affecting the selection of, access to and participation in specific learning programmes or occupations for both men and women. In turn, this gender division of labour contributes to the perpetuation of gender inequalities at work and in society at large.’
There are four targets (and associated indicators) related to technical and vocational education:
- Target 4.3: By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university
- Indicator 4.3.1: Participation rate of youth and adults in formal and non-formal education and training in the previous 12 months, by sex
- Target 4.4: By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship
- Indicator 4.4.1: Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill
- Target 4.5: By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situation
- Indicator 4.5.1: Parity indices (female/male, rural/urban, bottom/top wealth quintile and others such as disability status, indigenous peoples and conflict-affected, as data become available) for all education indicators on this list that can be disaggregated
- Target 8.6: By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training
- Indicator 8.6.1: Proportion of youth (aged 15-24 years) not in education, employment or training
The Agenda also highlights the importance of non-formal adult education, which tends to benefit marginalised groups.
- Adult literacy is included in the Agenda under Target 4.6 (and indicator 4.6.1) which requires that a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy
- Target 4.3 (and indicator 4.3.1) focuses on equal access to tertiary and higher education, including in non-formal settings
- Target 4.4 (and indicator 4.4.1) focuses on the acquisition of relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship, including ICT skills
- Target 4.5 (and indicator 4.5.1) refers to the need to ensure gender parity at all levels of education
- Target 4.7 (and indicator 4.7.1) focuses on the content of education, is closely aligned with the human rights aims of education, and applies equally to adult learners: ‘ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development’
See the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and the Education 2030 Framework for Action (2015) for the linkages between the targets and non-formal adult education.
Education is also central to achieving other goals within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including:
- Target 3.7 on universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education (and indicator 3.7.1)
- Target 5.6 on universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, the indicator for which (5.6.2) asks about the number of countries with laws and regulations that guarantee women aged 15-49 years access to sexual and reproductive health care, information and education
- Target 12.8 requires that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature. The indicator (12.8.1 - the same as 4.7)) for which is: Extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development (including climate change education) are mainstreamed in (a) national education policies; (b) curricula; (c) teacher education; and (d) student assessment
- Target 13.3 which seeks to improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning, and its indicator 13.3.1: Number of countries that have integrated mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning into primary, secondary and tertiary curricula
See further information on our page on Education 2030.
For a list of all SDGs and their relation to human rights standards, see the Danish Institute of Human Rights’ Human rights guide to the Sustainable Development Goals.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, Articles 6 & 13 (2) (b) (c) (d))
- General Comment 6 (1995, Paras 36-39)
- General Comment 13 (1999, Paras 9, 15-16, 19 & 21-24)
- General Comment 20 (2009, Para. 29)
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Articles 29 & 28 (1) (b) (c) (d) (3))
- General Comment 1 (2001, Para. 9)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979, Article 10 (a))
- General Recommendation 27 (2010, Para. 40)
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006, Article 24 (5))
UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960, Article 4 (a) (c))
UNESCO Convention on Technical and Vocational Education (1989, Articles 2 & 3)
ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989, Article 22 (1) (2))
ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999, Article 7, (2) (c))
ILO Human Resources Development Convention (No. 142) (1975, Articles 2-5)
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990, Articles 11 (3)(a)(b)(c) & 13 (3) (a))
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003, Articles 12 & 23 (a))
African Youth Charter (2006, Article 13 (4) (e)(f)(g))
Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004, Articles 40(4) & 41)
Charter of the Organization of American States (1948, Article 50)
Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons (2015, Article 20)
Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004, Articles 40 (4) & 41)
ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, 2012 (Article 31 (2))
European Social Charter (revised) (1996, Articles 10 & 17 (1) (a))
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992, Article 8 (1)(d))
European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers, 1977 (Article 14)
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000, Articles 14 (1) & 21)
Charter of the Organization of American States (1948, Articles 49 (c) & 50)
Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons (2015, Article 20)
Vienna International Plan of Action on Aging (1982, Recommendations 44-51)
United Nations Principles for Older Persons (1991, Principles 4 & 16)
World Declaration on Education for All (1990, Jomtien Declaration, Articles 1 & 5)
ILO Recommendation concerning Human Resources Development: Education, Training and Lifelong Learning (No. 195) (2004, Article 5 (h) [Note this is limited to ‘older workers’])
Belém Framework for Action (2009)
For the international normative framework that provides guiding principles for adult education policy and practice in UNESCO Member States, see UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (2015).