HE and the development goals - A means to an end

The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda proposes 12 major development goals divided into 54 sub-goals. Many of the goals are in line with the current eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Among the new elements are the attention on access to water and sanitation, sustainable energy, the creation of jobs, good governance, stable and peaceful societies and the creation of a global enabling environment.

Goal 3 on education

Education is addressed in Goal 3 with a focus on quality education and lifelong learning. The sub-goals deal with pre-primary education, (quality of) primary education, access to lower secondary education, learning outcomes of adolescents and skills for young and adult women and men.

Higher education does not feature in the agenda. It is only mentioned once in the whole document (in Annex 2).

According to Dr Jo Beall, the British Council's director of education and society, this is an unfortunate omission.

Higher education should be incorporated because of its important role in achieving the transformational shifts recommended by the High-Level Panel to get rid of poverty and create sustainable development.

Would this help to make the agenda any better and how should higher education appear in the document?

The importance of higher education

At the start of the millennium, influential UNESCO and World Bank reports - Peril and Promise, 2000, and Constructing Knowledge Societies, 2002 - renewed attention on the role of higher education in the social and economic development of developing countries.

It is now widely acknowledged that higher education is important for building a strong human capital base and provides an important impetus for innovation, research and economic development, and that the quality of the whole education system depends on the inputs of the higher echelons - for example teacher training, curriculum development and research.

Recognising the importance of this interlinkage, the International Association of Universities set up a global project called Higher Education for Education for All, or HEEFA.

It is evident that the achievement of the proposed 12 development goals requires the contribution of higher education systems to build the necessary human, research and institutional capacities to achieve and sustain these new goals.

Funds and facilities are not enough; expertise is needed to plan, implement and monitor programmes to achieve the new goals. And this expertise should be local, familiar with the context and committed to local needs and ambitions.

Donor support for higher education

Over the last decades many donors have continued to sponsor programmes which are aimed at capacity development of individuals and of higher education and research organisations in developing countries.

They have done so for multiple reasons. Because they believe in the importance of good education and research infrastructures in developing countries and of developing qualified human capital.

They also see opportunities for capitalising on the goodwill of alumni (from scholarship programmes) and partnerships between institutions (joint degree programmes, mobility of staff and students and collaborative research) for the benefit of developing as well as developed countries.

This argument helps to explain the unrelenting support of donors for these programmes and the substantial budgets allocated to them. The figures below illustrate this observation.

If we look at the 2012 figures in the OECD database on International Development Statistics, it is interesting to note that 40% of the total commitment of Development Assistance Committee, or DAC, countries to the education sector was earmarked for post-secondary education, while 28% was devoted to basic education.

For the multilateral organisations the division is respectively 13% and 31%, and for the European Union institutions 29% to tertiary and 21% to basic education. The percentage of unspecified funding varies between 20% (DAC countries) and 35% (EU institutions).

Germany and France are particularly keen on support of post-secondary education as respectively 69% and 71% of their total official development assistance support to education is earmarked for the highest levels of the education system. A substantial portion of this is invested in mobility schemes enabling foreign students to study in Germany or France.

To focus or not to focus?

Given this continued support for the higher levels of education, it would be interesting to analyse which proportion of this support is directly or indirectly contributing to the achievement of the MDGs.

Undoubtedly this would be a very difficult exercise. Donors can make this link more transparent by aligning the focal areas of their capacity building programmes in higher education and research with the new post-2015 agenda. This is an issue of policy and programme coherence.

The Dutch capacity development programmes, the Netherlands Fellowship Programmes and the Netherlands Initiative for Capacity Development in Higher Education, and NORHED - the Norwegian Programme for Capacity Development in Higher Education and Research for Development - clearly illustrate this point.

The programmes not only focus on building local post-education and training and research capacity, but they also thematically focus on many of the 12 new development goals such as: health; food security; water; job creation and economic growth; justice and security; gender and good governance. As such they are well aligned with the new development agenda.

Explicit or implicit?

Seen as an integral part of development - according to Simon McGrath - I would argue that the importance of higher education to achieving the old and new development goals is evident.

However, higher education should be seen as a means to an end.

Rather than declaring higher education a specific (sub) goal in the post-2015 agenda, more is gained when higher education and research are integrated in programmes which aim to achieve the 12 development goals and when their (possible) contribution is clearly demarcated and acknowledged as such.

* Ad Boeren is senior policy officer at the Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education, Nuffic.

* The Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, is running a campaign to raise awareness of how higher education can and should respond to global challenges beyond 2015 - join the debate and share your thoughts: The world beyond 2015 - Is higher education ready?.

* The content of this contribution appeared in a slightly different form as an article in NORRAG News (NN 49) and as a blog on 7 June 2013 on the Nuffic blog site.