For far too long, the cause of universal education has taken a back seat to other great international movements for change. Now, for two new reasons that lie at the heart of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s launch of the “Education First” initiative, education has returned to its rightful place atop the global policy agenda.

First and foremost, young people have themselves become the biggest advocates of universal education for girls and boys. Refusing to remain silent while denied opportunity, young people – particularly girls – have launched one of the great civil-rights struggles of our time.

Few could remain unmoved by the brave fight of the young Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai after the Taliban shot her in the head because she insisted on the right of young girls to an education. Few have failed to notice the massive public outpouring of support in Pakistan and elsewhere for the cause that she is championing.

Likewise, we have also seen in recent months the creation by schoolgirls in Bangladesh of child-marriage-free zones, aimed at defending the right of girls to stay in school instead of being married off as teenage brides against their will. In India, the Global March Against Child Labor, led by the children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi, has rescued thousands of young boys and girls from a life of slavery in factories, workshops, and domestic service, and has ensured that they return to school.

These demonstrations by girls and boys demanding their right to education have made the fight for basic schooling impossible to ignore. Consequently, every government now feels under even greater pressure to deliver the second of the global Millennium Development Goals (“achieve universal primary education”) by the end of 2015.

But a second worldwide force also has propelled education to the center of the policy agenda in most countries: the increased recognition of the importance of education by those who examine why countries succeed or fail. For years, academics have debated whether culture, institutions, ideology, or resources cause some countries to lag behind. Today, a growing number of writers, researchers, and policymakers see the crucial link between education and national economic success.

The deployment of human capital has become an important factor in explaining why some countries remain stuck in a “middle-income trap” and why others cannot break out of low-income status. And research assessing a country’s human capital now focuses on the quantity and quality of basic skills, qualified graduate manpower, and expertise in research and development.

Putting education first is urgent in view of the scale of wasted talent and potential worldwide. Some 57 million children still do not go to school, 500 million girls will never finish the secondary education to which they are entitled, and 750 million adults remain illiterate.

The link between education and economic success makes the delivery of quality schooling and training a hugely important issue for business as well. By 2020, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, we will face the twin problems of a shortfall of up to 40 million high-skill workers and a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers. By 2030, the global workforce of 3.5 billion will include an estimated one billion workers who lack a secondary education, significantly hindering their countries’ economic prospects.

As a result, without urgent action, businesses are likely to face a huge skills shortage, especially in emerging markets and developing countries, where most economic activity will be concentrated. Indeed, the adult illiteracy rate in Somalia is 63%, and 39% in Nigeria; in South Sudan, more girls die during childbirth than complete primary school.

Unless we act, by mid-century the global economy will be characterized by massive waste of talent and unequal opportunities. According to new figures from the Wittgenstein Center’s forthcoming book World Population and Human Capital in the 21st Century, only 3% of young adults in Mali and Mozambique are projected to have a tertiary education in 2050; the expected proportion is just 4% in Niger, Liberia, Rwanda, and Chad, and only 5% in Malawi and Madagascar. While the projection for North America as a whole is 60%, the forecast for Sub-Saharan Africa is 16%.

Such figures reveal a world divided between those who have and those who lack educational opportunity, with huge potential repercussions not only in terms of skill shortages and economic waste, but also in terms of social stability. The late US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words in Brown v. Board of Education,which struck down the legal basis for racial segregation in America’s public schools, remain no less relevant today: “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” As Warren put it, “Such an opportunity…is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

We have little more than two years to turn basic education from a privilege for some into a right for all. Secretary-General Ban and I are determined that every day until that deadline in December 2015, we will work as hard as possible to ensure every child is in school.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of the World Economic Forum. Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.

Author: UN Special Envoy for Global Education; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2007-2010).

Image: A little girl is asleep in a classroom in Haiti REUTERS/Kena Betancur