GLOBAL: Higher education a driver of the MDGs

Universities should use existing resources and capacities - however abundant or meagre - to orientate their activities more directly towards supporting UN Millennium Development Goals, the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Cape Town heard last week. Strategies should be more directly linked to government targets and international higher education MDG collaboration should be forged at the national and regional levels.

"Education is one of the foremost Millennium Development Goals, but education in turn can be used to drive their achievement," said Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association, SARUA, at the ACU conference of executive heads on Universities and the Millennium Development Goals.

She argued in a paper* that universities had a significant role to play in promoting the MDGs at a number of levels in higher education. But there is a dearth of information and research on the topic.

In September 2000 all 192 United Nation member states adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty in all its forms by half by 2015. The following year, agreement was reached on eight goals supported by 21 quantifiable targets and 60 indicators through which progress could be measured.

The main responsibility for achieving the goals rests with governments. "While goals one to seven are committed to socio-economic development, the eighth goal explicitly asserts that eradicating poverty worldwide can only be achieved through international cooperation," Kotecha pointed out.

Many countries have been integrating the MDGs into national development frameworks and strategies, and using them to help monitor progress. There had been some excellent gains made, she added, the most important being in poverty relief, education, child mortality and global reduction in consumption of substances that deplete the ozone layer, according to The Millennium Development Goals report 2009 published by the UN.

But the global recession had severely hit progress, including by stalling advances in poverty alleviation, hunger eradication, gender equality and maternal health, by eroding the ability of country's to mobilise resources for development and by reducing donor funding. Other issues had been lack of political will and leadership, and weak planning and implementation.

"Developing nations will therefore need to find additional ways and means of achieving the MDGs, and one of the most viable ways of doing this is through higher education."

In recent decades, Kotecha said, higher education had assumed growing importance both as a driver of development and as a vehicle for personal development towards a better life. "Now more than ever before, higher education in developing nations is being expected to take on the mantle of responsibility for growth and development, where often governments fail."

But in many poor nations, higher education functioned in a hostile environment with "often appalling socio-economic conditions that are basically antithetical to sustained progress and growth". As a result, success has been limited.

In the area of education, the MDG focus had been on universal primary education. But increased access to primary education should logically translate into increased access to university, and this was arguably already reflected in the 'massification' of higher education.

According to Unesco there had been a five-fold increase in student numbers worldwide in four decades and 53% growth since 2000 to reach a total of nearly 153 million tertiary students in 2007. The pace of enrolment growth quickened to 7% a year after 1999. By 2025 higher education could enroll more than 262 million students - with demand expanding especially in developing countries.

Since the MDGs have to do with human and social development, Kotecha said, "they should de facto be of concern to higher education and, as such, there should be no moral obstacle to their inculcation into higher education practice in one form or another".

However, in the sparse researchable instances where MDGs did form a direct part of the higher education enterprise, they related mainly to the use of existing courses across various disciplines to give effect to individual goals.

Examples were in agricultural sciences, engineering, rural development, literacy, community service, teacher training, open and distance learning, gender policy and mainstreaming, and using faculties such as social work and medicine to train communities.

Universities had HIV-Aids programmes for staff, students and communities, had developed policies and had integrated HIV-Aids into curricula. They had also promoted and researched sustainable development and incorporated it into programmes. Some collaborations has been forged between universities in the North and South in alignment with the MDGs.

But more needed to be done, Kotecha insisted.

Globally, all universities in developed and developing nations could align individual MDGs to existing disciplines, resources and capacities.

At the regional level, the goals could be advanced by harmonisation and the maximum use of collective resources and capacities. One potential strategy was to enhance knowledge of regional higher education systems and promote international collaboration and networking between universities. "These initiatives could be introduced incrementally."

In the Southern African Development Community, the SADC Protocol on Education and Training aimed to achieve the equivalence, harmonisation and standardisation of education and training systems. Eight technical committees covering areas ranging from research to lifelong learning, were created to achieve these aims.

"Experience has however taught us that the silos that come with territorial boundaries and national and political agendas are notoriously difficult to break down," Kotecha said. While there had been some excellent advances, for example in aligning legislation, progress had been slow. "It is likely these dynamics would characterise all regional harmonisation efforts."

As a basis for regional collaboration, SARUA conducted an audit in 2008 that for the fist time provided substantial and verified information about the profile and state of higher education in the region and pointers to areas that needed support for its future development.

The report could be used to develop a comprehensive, integrated regional strategy, Kotecha said. It could also be complemented by, for example, an audit of collaborations. "This would maximise the efficacy of existing partnerships, eliminate duplications and identify possible areas for the introduction of additional partners." Gaps uncovered could offer pointers to which MDGs needed to be prioritised.

The purpose of regional collaboration in education is growth and development which, she continued, was in line with the goals in terms of increasing access to higher education and socio-economic development resulting from producing skilled and competent graduates. There were also further potential benefits to be derived through inculcating the MDGs into educational offerings and practices in universities.

This view was supported by the 2008 World Bank report Accelerating Catch-Up: Tertiary education for growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, which argued that the focus should increasingly be on using existing resources more efficiently, on innovative sources of funding and on improving higher education efficiency.

To contribute more significantly to development, universities needed to "consciously and persistently transform themselves into a different type of educational enterprise: networked, differentiated and responsive institutions on the production of strategically needed human skills and applied problem-solving research. If achieved this would constitute a 21st Century version of the African 'Development University," said the World Bank report.

At national level, the formulation and implementation of higher education policies towards specific developmental goals could support their achievement. Since all UN member states signed the MDGs, their support for the goals could be assumed. Universities needed to link to government development policies and initiatives, Kotecha said.

The South African government had been steering universities into desired behaviours and outcomes that would promote its developmental agenda, which is closely aligned to the MDGs. The Medium Term Strategic Framework (2009-14) specifically states that it is the country's responsibility to strive to attain the goals - and where possible contribute to their achievement across Africa and further afield. This supports the notion of regional and continental collaboration, she argued.

In South Africa, the government determines the overall goals for the higher education system and establishes incentives and sanctions to steer the system - planning, funding and quality mechanisms. "Higher education is being steered ever more closely, in order for the state to achieve its developmental goals, which are consonant with the MDGs," Kotecha said.

Higher education institutions could also promote the MDGs more directly. A suggested framework for universities entailed the "inculcation and translation of the MDGs into every facet of institutional operations", including by:

* Taking each goal in turn and ensuring it found expression in university policies, for example development economics, sustainable development, ethics policies and conflict resolution as well as gender mainstreaming and HIV-Aids.
* Involving all stakeholders and role-players in drafting a declaration supporting the MDGs that would be reflected in university strategy and other framing documents, ensuring buy-in.
* Identifying and engaging all internal and external stakeholders to determine the level of support they could offer the institution in MDG-based initiatives. Stakeholders could include government agencies and businesses.
* Incorporating the MDGs in curricula by, for instance, offering a compulsory module for all students, infusing the values and focuses of the goals across modules, goal-focused research, and introducing qualifications that deal with specific MDGs.
* Promoting intellectual engagement on the MDGs by holding discussions and lectures.

"There are undoubtedly other initiatives that could be included in the framework but it is one that could feasibly serve as a basis for all institutions, with limited disruption and cost," said Kotecha. There were five ways in which universities could incorporate the MDGs to lasting effect:

* Use the lens of analysis to examine how policies at various levels, from institutional to national, could be used to achieve the goals.
* Develop a guiding framework as a basis for action.
* Set milestones and service levels to monitor and evaluate initiatives around the MDGs.
* Ensure planned reporting on progress and outcomes to ensure accountability.
* Derive maximum benefit and use from available internal and external funding streams.

However, Kotecha concluded, it must be borne in mind that commitment to the pursuit of the MDGs is essentially a moral imperative that requires a transformative and collaborative mindset. "As such their achievement will require dedication, commitment and drivegiven that the MDGs have no legal status."

* "Interrogating the Role of Higher Education in the Delivery of the MDGs", by Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association.