Well educated people tend to live longer, make more informed health choices and have higher incomes. Access to quality education for all people is central to achieving the SDGs. Given that the Tropics lags behind the rest of the world in education outcomes, this is a key focus for the region. Where societies experience persistent inequality, education is essential for narrowing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Education promotes economic growth and provides the basis for strong institutions. Generally, people with higher levels of education hold stronger beliefs about the importance of democracy.

Across the world, the number and proportion of people who have attended school has increased significantly over the past 50 years. Nonetheless, an education gap persists between the Tropics and the rest of the world. In 2017, adults 25 years of age and older in tropical nations were estimated to have completed almost seven years of schooling, compared to almost nine years for the rest of the world. Earlier estimates suggest that despite improvement across the globe, this gap between the Tropics and the rest of the world has changed very little.

According to UNESCO, all children should be able to read by the age of 10. Reading is the most important gateway for further learning and allows progression through school and higher education. Schooling has expanded globally and is now almost universal. Most children enrol in primary school and every new cohort spends more time in school than did the previous one. However, many are still being left behind—as demonstrated by poor adult and youth literacy rates—particularly in tropical Africa and parts of Oceania.

There must be an ongoing focus on educational attainment in the Tropics, as this is essential for these regions’ sustainable future. An important consideration will be how to move from simply having children attend school to ensuring they receive a quality education. However, while education may sometimes seem like a silver bullet, it will not bring about true sustainable development on its own; education systems are part of broader economic, political and social institutions. Improving care and education in the first five years of life is also essential for education, and thus sustainable development outcomes more broadly.

Higher education supports the development of skilled labour and builds the capacity to generate knowledge and innovation, which in turn boosts productivity and economic growth. Higher education provides benefit not only to the individual receiving it but to society at large.

The total number of recorded tertiary enrolments grew by more than 20 million globally between 2013 and 2017. Although most of this growth occurred in the rest of the world, enrolments in the Tropics, where data are available, accounted for almost half of this growth. This is likely to be underestimated by several hundred thousand as data are only available for 80% of the tropical population. The number of tertiary enrolments per 100,000 people increased marginally between 2013 and 2017, representing a small slowdown in tertiary enrolment growth, increasing alongside population growth (Figure 7.7). Notably, some large nations such as the United States (US), South Korea and Australia have shown a decline in the proportion of university enrolments, reflecting both economic conditions and the local policy environment in those nations.