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Education can transform communities — if it’s accessible to all, U.N. panelists say

Access to technology is critical to success, individually and for communities

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez meets with attendees after moderating the Building Inclusive Communities Through Education panel at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez meets with attendees after moderating the Building Inclusive Communities Through Education panel at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

SALT LAKE CITY — After 90 minutes of discussing how education could help build more inclusive communities, Utah Valley University president Astrid Tuminez said the discussion made one thing clear — without access to all types of tools, inequities would persist.

“To wrap it up, it’s really about working together to say that technology should not create another century of inequality,” she said, after moderating a panel discussion entitled “Building Inclusive Communities Through Education” at the United Nations Civil Society Conference on Monday afternoon. “Those who have technology are able to communicate, to collaborate, to market themselves.”

Panelist Dr. Ruben Ng, assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, said without ways to bring technologies and opportunities to the most disadvantaged communities, the ideas they discussed in the Salt Palace Ballroom are just “lofty ideas.”

Added panelist Thomas George, senior urban advisor for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), governments had to prioritize educational funding in a way that didn’t always happen in many communities.

The panelists spent 90 minutes discussing the realities of education, including the fact that while more children than ever before are in school, millions don’t acquire the necessary level of education to lift themselves out of poverty or transform their communities. George offered sobering statistics, including the fact that 12% of the world’s children are not in primary school, and 31% of upper secondary age children are not in school.

“We need to focus more on urban areas,” he said. “We need to look at localized solutions.”

The group discussed barriers, and while economics was certainly a top issue, culture of family and community actually had the biggest impact on whether or not education was a priority individually and as communities.

Ramu Damodaran, chief of the United Nations Academic Impact Initiative, said communities have to decide “the dignity and worth of human persons” and the resolve of their communities to create educational opportunities for all people.

Jamal Watson, editor-at-large for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, pointed out that access to higher education was a major issue in the 2020 U.S. presidential race, and that even as the demographic of American colleges changes, too many are still being left out.

“How can we make colleges and universities in this country more accessible to people who have been marginalized and left out?” he said. “That’s first-generation students, students who have learning disabilities — we have to broaden our definition of diversity. We have to be able to meet students where they are, to be able to take them where they need to be.”

After about a half dozen audience questions, Tuminez tried to condense all the aspirations shared and discussed into two action items that will be included in a final document that will be shared with the U.N.’s General Assembly.

“Funding in education needs to be in a sufficient, transparent and accountable manner,” she said.

The second action item was about technology.

“We need to have a way of having meaningful public-private partnerships,” she said, attempting to sum up all of the suggestions offered, “to look at how inclusive education can be.”