Malala UN Speech: She's Talking, But Are Rich Nations Listening?


Malala Yousefzai’s July 12 speech on at the United Nations , on her 16th birthday, declared as Malala Day by the UN, was nothing less than inspiring. It was lauded around the world as leaders, activists, and celebrities praised her for advocating education for every child and every human being — even for the children of those who almost took her life by putting a bullet in her head. The standing ovation she received at the end of her address was a testament to the fact that she has cemented her place as an icon for education.  

Malala’s message resonates with most people, yet its implementation has been largely unsuccessful. Under-developed nations continue to lack the basic infrastructure to provide a just system where education can truly be considered a universal right and not just a privilege for a handful. Developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, which pride themselves on being bastions for higher education, are proving with every passing year that those with deep pockets stand the best chance of attaining quality learning. 

In the U.S., tuition fees continue to rise, and an average student is estimated to have incurred a debt of $27,000. Just this year federal loan rates increased over twofold to 6.8%, when lawmakers last month failed to reach a deal to negotiate a relief rate for those struggling to pay high tuition fees. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that between 1980 and 2010, tuition and boarding costs increased three times, from $6801 in 1980 to $15,605, after adjusting for inflation.

Earlier this year, a damaging report published by the New America Foundation asserted that some private and public universities are discouraging poor students to attend their institutions by catering towards the rich. Instead of providing financial aid to the poor, they now favor rich students who can afford to pay most of their educational costs and would only need a small sum of financial help.

The author of the report, Stephen Burd, said, "It's more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student."

In the UK, a staggering threefold increase in tuition fees was pushed through by the current coalition government back in 2010. This move is predicted to load an average student with nearly £40,000 in debt after a three-year undergraduate program. 

Local UK students yearning for Master's or Ph.D. programs are declining, as many are denied any form of financial help. Research councils which provided some form of relief for individuals in dire monetary situations, are also under tremendous financial burdens and are scaling back drastically on how many grants they can dispense to aspiring postgraduate students. 

In Malala’s own homeland, Pakistan, government spending on education is less a priority than military spending. Pakistani spending on the military this fiscal year has increased by 15.4%, to $6.8 billion, whereas money allocated towards education has decreased from 2.6% to 2.3% of the total GNP over the last decade. Over five million children eligible for primary school are currently not enrolled in any institute, a number that is only second to Nigeria.

Furthermore, the only places where one could get a decent primary and secondary education in the Islamic Republic are in private schools, whose fees are too expensive to bear for the less affluent. English is an important factor in securing a well-paying job or accessing a reputable university, and hence a huge majority of children in the country who study in Urdu schools or religious institutions are unable to attain some of the most sought-out work in country.

Malala’s drive to help educate the masses is a commendable ethic. Unfortunately, governments and individuals in positions of power continue to propagate policies that only favor a minute percentage of a population, the rich and upwardly mobile. From the U.S. to Pakistan, we must all put more deliberate effort into narrowing the education inequality that is rising in most countries today.