HE should get lion’s share in post-2015 education goals

With the deadline for the UNESCO 'Education for All' goals now just two years away, a consensus is emerging that post-2015 global efforts to expand education should focus on the tertiary sector.

That was the outcome of an “Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda” seminar staged last Wednesday in Brussels, which brought together educational experts and policy-makers and was hosted by the Norwegian government.

We need to “strengthen higher education systems…to provide more and better education in developing countries”, said European Union Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

Backing a more “holistic approach to education”, the Cypriot said that focusing on higher education was important because it generated economic development. Higher education leads to “job creation, better governance, increased entrepreneurship and a stronger civil society”, she told the seminar.

Growth, equity

According to the European Commission, the number of students enrolled in higher education worldwide is forecast to rise from almost 100 million in 2000 to over 400 million in 2030. This growth – especially in emerging market countries – could put pressure on rich countries to maintain or increase higher education spending in Europe.

“If we don't increase investment in higher education, we will have a problem,” said Bjørn Haugstad, state secretary to the Norwegian ministry of education and research, listing his country's high ambitions for education, both nationally and globally.

“Norway aims to be a global leader in education,” he assured delegates, saying that its government wanted to develop assurance systems to ensure the quality of lecturers. Quality in higher education was difficult to define, he lamented. “It is like trying to hammer raspberry jam against a wall. But that is not an excuse for not trying to keep it alive.”

For his part Dr Qian Tang, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education, called for more equity regarding access to higher education.

Having travelled across Africa and spoken to scores of education ministers, he stressed there was an urgent need for better higher education in the developing world. “Everyone in Africa tells me they need higher education to help primary schools and therefore the socio-economic development of their country,” he said.


Meanwhile David Edwards, deputy general secretary of the Brussels-based Education International – the global union federation of teachers' trade unions – said there finally seemed to be a convergence between the European Commission and UNESCO.

“They both agree that higher education has sort of been left out in the past,” he told University World News at the event.

He believes the sector needs to be at the centre of UNESCO education policy and close to the heart of governments. “I heard loud and clear today, the government of Norway – one of the biggest funders of education – said that higher education should receive a lion's share.”

Edwards reckoned that there had been too much focus on creating exchange programmes attracting students to Europe and not enough on “institutional strengthening”, especially in emerging market countries, “and making it more affordable or actually free in some places”.

But this job would not be easy: “I am cautiously optimistic about what this could actually mean,” he said, adding that he wanted a wider ambition, beyond using rankings systems and private initiatives, to broader public policy worldwide promoting “quality higher education so that higher education employees and students have better rights and governance”.

Elisabeth Gehrke, vice chair of the European Students' Union, agreed. She told University World News that although she backed orienting UNESCO work post-2015, she was worried that the voice of students may not be heard.

“We are behind their goals regarding higher education and emphasising quality and access, but for us there was too much emphasis on the economic aspect in terms of cooperation of business,” she said.

“It is important to emphasise student participation, not just in terms of ranking and survey, but really participating in the decision-making processes that are taking place in different institutions.”

Gehrke said she feared students and teachers were being taken out of governing structures so business could be emphasised. “Although we want to see this business cooperation, it has to be on our terms,” she concluded.

Christian Addai-Poku, president of Ghana's National Association of Graduate Teachers, also agreed. “Education is becoming a commodity instead of a human right,” he warned. “The poor rural guys need to catch up with the rich, urban guys.”

Speaking after the event to University World News, Addai-Poku said however that a focus on higher education should not be at the expense of lower tiers: “When basic education is weak, when the foundation is weak, the higher education is also weak, lamenting the huge gap between the 'have-nots' and the 'haves’.”

What next?

Looking ahead, over the next six months, UNESCO has planned regional debates to determine the main targets and indicators of member states that could be written into a post-2015 policy, which would be discussed at a Global Education Conference to be hosted by South Korea in May 2015.

But for Tang, ultimately member states will do the work. They “are in the driving seat”, he concluded, stressing that higher education experts and policy-makers should coordinate their efforts, with education as high on governments’ agendas as foreign affairs.