Global Education Digest 2010

Cover of the Global Education Digest 2010On 17 September, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) announced the publication of the Global Education Digest 2010. This year's edition of the GED focuses on gender and education.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for the elimination of gender disparity at all levels of education by 2015 but according to the GED, only 85 of 157 countries with data will have reached gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2015, if current trends continue. 23 countries are unlikely to reach the goal at the primary level and 63 countries are unlikely to do so at the secondary level.

Gender disparities in access to education are greatest in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia, and to a lesser extent in the Arab States. In these regions, fewer girls than boys are enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary education. The opposite - gender disparity in favor of girls - can be observed in tertiary education in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America and Western Europe.

Other topics discussed in the Global Education Digest 2010 include: the differences between boys and girls in terms of progression through and completion of primary and secondary education; the interaction between gender, socio-economic status, geographic location, ethnicity and other factors as determinants of participation in education; differences in learning achievement of boys and girls; trends in adult literacy; women's choice of field of study at the tertiary level of education; and national education policies.

The statistical tables in the GED were updated with data up to 2008 for most indicators. All data are also available at the UIS Data Centre.

  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). 2010. Global education digest 2010: Comparing education statistics across the world. Montreal: UIS. (Download in PDF format, 8 MB)
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Trends in adult literacy, 1990-2008

8 September is International Literacy Day, which was first celebrated in 1966. New estimates of adult and youth literacy by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) show that the percentage of literate persons continues to grow worldwide. Even so, in 2008, 796 million adults aged 15 years or older - 17% of all adults worldwide - still lacked basic reading and writing skills and 64% of them were women (see UIS fact sheet on adult and youth literacy). By comparison, 24% of all adults were illiterate in 1990.

Figure 1 displays how the adult literacy rate and the associated gender parity index (GPI) have evolved between 1990 and 2008 for the 10 Millennium Development Goal regions and for the world as a whole. The gender parity index is the ratio of the female over the male literacy rate. For example, the female and male literacy rate in 2008 - 78.9% and 88.2%, respectively - yield a GPI of 0.9 (see Table 1). A GPI between 0.97 and 1.03 is usually considered gender parity. At GPI values below 1, women are disadvantaged and at GPI values above 1, men are disadvantaged. If a country or region reaches universal literacy, with male and female literacy rates of 100%, the GPI must be 1 by definition. This can be seen in the developed regions and in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), both of which are near universal literacy with a GPI of 1.

Figure 1: Adult literacy rate and gender parity, 1990-2008
Graph with trends in adult literacy and gender parity from 1990 to 2008
Data source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Data Centre, September 2010.

At the global level, both the adult literacy rate and gender parity improved over the past 20 years. The literacy rate grew from 76% in 1990 to 83% in 2008 and the GPI from 0.84 to 0.90 (see Table 1). Progress was especially strong in Northern Africa, where the adult literacy rate increased by 20%, and in Eastern and Southern Asia, which saw an increase of 15%. In Northern Africa and Southern Asia less than half of all adults were literate in 1990, less than in any other region. In 2008, the lowest literacy rates were observed in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with 62% and 63%, respectively. However, even sub-Saharan Africa managed to increase the share of adults with basic reading and writing skills by 9% between 1990 and 2008. In the remaining regions, the increase in the adult literacy rate over the past two decades was as follows: Western Asia 11%; South-Eastern Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean 7%; Oceania 4%; CIS 1%; and the developed regions 0.3%. The rate of increase in the developed regions and in the CIS countries was neglible because both regions had already reached near-universal adult literacy in 1990. Literacy rates are also high in Eastern Asia, South-Eastern Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean; in all three regions more than 9 out of 10 adults are able to read and write.

Gender parity also improved in all MDG regions, with Northern Africa again showing the biggest increase, from 0.57 in 1990 to 0.76 in 2008, followed by Eastern Asia and Southern Asia, where the GPI increased by 0.14 over the same period. In spite of this increase, Southern Asia continues to exhibit relatively high gender disparity in adult literacy, with a GPI of 0.70. The UIS reports similar disparities for sub-Saharan Africa (0.75) and Northern Africa (0.76). In the other regions the GPI for adult literacy was as follows in 2008: Western Asia 0.84, Oceania 0.89, Eastern Asia 0.94, South-Eastern Asia 0.95, and CIS and the developed regions 1.00.

Table 1: Adult literacy rate and gender parity, 1990-2008
MDG region Year Adult literacy rate (%)
Total Male Female GPI
Developed regions 1990 98.7 99.0 98.4 0.99

2008 99.0 99.2 98.9 1.00
Commonwealth of Independent States 1990 98.1 99.4 97.1 0.98

2008 99.5 99.7 99.4 1.00
Eastern Asia 1990 78.9 87.7 69.7 0.80

2008 93.8 96.8 90.7 0.94
South-Eastern Asia 1990 84.8 90.0 80.0 0.89

2008 91.9 94.5 89.5 0.95
Southern Asia 1990 47.3 60.1 33.5 0.56

2008 61.9 73.2 50.9 0.70
Western Asia 1990 73.8 84.2 62.6 0.74

2008 84.5 91.5 76.9 0.84
Northern Africa 1990 47.8 60.8 34.6 0.57

2008 67.3 76.7 58.1 0.76
Sub-Saharan Africa 1990 53.1 63.7 43.1 0.68

2008 62.5 71.6 53.6 0.75
Latin America and the Caribbean 1990 84.4 85.9 82.8 0.96

2008 91.0 91.9 90.3 0.98
Oceania 1990 62.9 68.9 56.5 0.82

2008 66.4 70.2 62.6 0.89
World 1990 75.7 82.2 69.2 0.84

2008 83.4 88.2 78.9 0.90
Data source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Data Centre, September 2010.

National and regional literacy rates can be obtained from the UIS Data Centre. From the main Data Centre page at, click on Predefined Tables and then Literacy. National literacy rates are available for the years 1975 to 2008. Regional and global literacy rates are presented by census decade, from 1985-1994 to 2005-2008.

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