UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 20 May


outcomes of webinar on 20 May
© CC BY 2.0, Flickr/Ajay
9 June 2020

On 20 May 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on “New partnerships in education governance during COVID-19”, as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). International and national perspectives on new partnerships were provided by representatives of the World Organization of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the Department of Education in the Philippines, followed by insights at the local level from the UNESCO Learning City of Seodaemun-gu in the Republic of Korea.

On behalf of UIL, Mr Alex Howells opened the webinar. He explained that, in the context of COVID-19, the cross-sectoral governance of education has taken on a new significance, with new partnerships forged in a matter of days and weeks. In countries and cities around the world, formal education has moved online, with schools ceding some responsibility for provision to online learning providers and parents. With vulnerable groups facing difficulties in accessing online learning, new partnerships with technology companies have helped municipalities extend internet coverage and access to devices in a relatively short space of time. Meanwhile, universities have transitioned to online learning while contributing to new partnerships beyond traditional course programmes – many institutions have implemented open-access courses for adults and have harnessed the expertise of their faculties of medicine to conduct health awareness campaigns and contribute towards medical advancements to counter the virus. Adult education has been further aided by the opening up of previously restricted learning resources by businesses, digital providers, libraries and universities. All these new partnerships and adaptations signal an immediate shift in education governance, but they will also have a long-term effects as more stakeholders work together to facilitate educational provision.

The World Organization of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)

Ms Sara Hoeflich de Duque, director of UCLG Learning, explained that membership of UCLG is mainly comprised of local government associations. UCLG works through the angle of ‘learning’, but the main angle of its work is advocacy: as well as being a UN-recognized agency, UCLG coordinates city networks through a ‘global task force’. Learning in UCLG looks at decentralized cooperation and capacity-building at the local level, as well as knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer between cities. UCLG also focuses on connecting the global agenda to local development – particularly the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in recognition that governments are the main implementers of the Sustainable Development Goals. As the spread of COVID-19 increased, political leaders represented by UCLG wanted to learn from each other and, in response to this need, UCLG launched a consultation called ‘Beyond the immediate response to the outbreak of COVID-19’. During this consultation, education was a particular priority expressed by local governments. Even though direct intervention in education is limited at the local level, local governments coordinate public–private partnerships in maintaining schools, childcare centres, elderly care and other facilities – thus, local governments ensure that these services remain functional.

The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)

Ms Julie Reddy, Acting CEO of SAQA, began her contribution by introducing the theory of relational agency and its pertinence to the formation of new partnerships in education governance. She explained that relational agency is focused on working across traditional practice boundaries in order to create common knowledge, as well as a shared understanding of collaborators’ different motives. Crossing practice boundaries is central to any effort to form a new partnership and has been evident at the national level in South Africa. When COVID-19 began to spread in South Africa, the president established the ‘National COVID-19 Command Council’, which has seen the wide consultation of government ministries, business, labour, civic organisations, experts and health professionals. In terms of education, both the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training committed to ensuring the continuity of education.

For formal schooling, partnerships have been formed to offer comprehensive learning support packages in alignment with six areas: online learning; communication and dissemination; nutrition; health and hygiene; monitoring and evaluation; and teacher engagement. A range of providers – including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Heartlines (a social change organization), private sector companies and several network providers – have collaborated to provide these support packages. In adult education, there has been an appeal to faith-based organisations, NGOs and community leaders to provide their infrastructure for tuition and examinations for adult learners working towards the General Education and Training Certificate.

The UNESCO Learning City of Seodaemun-gu, Republic of Korea

Mr Mun Seok-Jin, Mayor of Seodaemun-gu, talked first about some of the measures put in place across the Republic of Korea to ensure the continuity of schooling and adult education. These measures include supporting ICT and the provision of wireless network devices for schools to provide online classes, establishing a future-oriented education centre, mobilizing teaching assistants to strengthen the online teaching competencies of teachers, and providing a subsidy for private schools and classes as an alternative to attending closed public schools. Mr Mun underlined the need for cities to adopt a ‘creative approach’ in ensuring educational provision, given their lack of direct authority over the public education system; in Seodaemun-gu, one creative approach involved the distribution of ‘career experience kits’ designed to help young people explore their career options.

The city of Seodaemun-gu has established a number of partnerships in education governance during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the municipal government signed a memorandum of understanding with Seoul’s Western District Office of Education in order to strengthen remote learning systems. In addition, the municipal government of Seodaemun-gu has worked directly with 40 local schools, providing financial support of 2 million USD for the acquisition of tablet PCs and the extension of wireless networks. This initiative targeted less privileged students who may not have the means to access online classes. The government has also partnered with Seoul National University to develop two new programmes: a citizenship learning course; and a capacity-building programme for future teachers. In collaboration with Ewha Woman’s University, a group of 50 mentors has been fcreated to support local young people with remote learning. Finally, Seodaemun-gu’s municipal government has formed partnerships with expert groups, for example through a new committee of the ‘Convergence Talent Education Centre’, involving university faculty members, centre directors, school principals and education experts.

The Philippines

Mr Jesus Mateo of the Philippines Department of Education shared a number of measures taken at the national level in the Philippines with regard to educational governance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Education developed a Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan, designed to provide guidance on how to deliver education, while ensuring the health, welfare and safety of all learners. The plan was developed through a participatory approach, with inputs provided by different units of the Department of Education as well as the Philippine Forum for Inclusive Basic Education, whose membership is comprised of multilateral and bilateral agencies including non-governmental and civil society organizations. Furthermore, an online survey was implemented for teachers and students to provide suggestions to the Department of Education as to when and through which modalities schooling should take place. Efforts have been made to ensure that diverse groups of education stakeholders have been involved in the implementation of the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan. Though nationally driven, the plan has been contextualized at the point of implementation by regional field offices. Moving forward, the Department of Education is looking to work with partners, including those who specialize in sanitation, who can support the safe reopening of schools.


During the debate, Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) relayed questions to the participants around the practical steps in setting up new partnerships in education governance at this time, the processes in place to determine which partnerships are formed, and the main challenges in ensuring their sustainability. Ms Hoeflich de Duque answered that, for the establishment of partnerships, facilitators are needed, as well as a clear delineation between what is public and what is private. It is important that local governments remain at the centre of the partnership in order to ensure it operates in the public interest. The pandemic provides a big opportunity for partnerships, but clarity is crucial when it comes to commitments to the governance system – each partner should know exactly what they can contribute and for how long. Ms Hoeflich de Duque also highlighted the risks involved by arguing that, if policies are not developed for partnerships, local governments can end up being run by partners. Ms Reddy noted that the luxury of thorough planning was not an option for immediate responses to the pandemic, and so partnerships have been formed very quickly; nevertheless, it is vital to recognise what additional value any given partner brings. Civil society and community considerations must also be taken into consideration when creating partnerships. Mr Mun highlighted the importance of maintaining a dialogue during the time of the pandemic by regularly communicating with teachers, parents and other stakeholders. At the end of the debate, Mr Mateo stated that legislation is helpful in guiding the establishment of partnerships.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series featuring ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click on the links below to read summaries of the eleven previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Prisons and prison education. Outcomes of webinar on 13 May

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Open distance learning. Outcomes of webinar on 6 May

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Mental health, health and well-being. Outcomes of webinar on 29 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: The cases of Évry-Courcouronnes (France), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Mayo-Baléo (Cameroon), and the Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF). Outcomes of webinar on 23 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw