Higher education and the post-2015 development goals – UNESCO

In a new briefing report, UNESCO has identified tertiary education as a fundamental element towards progress in each of 16 proposed post-2015 global sustainable development goals.

According to the report, Sustainable Development Post-2015 Begins with Education, higher education is intertwined with the suggested global development targets that will replace the current United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals when they expire next year.

The report highlights how higher education can reduce poverty, improve health, empower women and protect the environment. “The evidence is unequivocal: education saves and transforms lives,” said UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova.

HE and poverty

Commenting on higher education’s role in poverty alleviation, the report noted that it equips individuals with competencies and skills that are needed in the labour market.

For instance in El-Salvador, whereas only 5% of workers with less than primary education have an employment contract, 50% of those with secondary and tertiary education work under secure signed contracts.

According to Lalla Aicha Ben Barka, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for Africa, returns of higher education to society have been highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. But she laments that those gains are being lost as a result of poor quality of research and scholarship in universities.

“Poverty alleviation will require a robust higher education system capable of greater contribution in knowledge, science and technology,” says Ben Barka in her analysis of the role of tertiary education in Africa in the post-2015 period and beyond.

The report roots for quality tertiary education in order to unlock the wider benefits of education. “Access to university education is not enough but it must be of good quality for it to address global challenges,” says the report.

Empowering women

Drawing data from UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4, the briefing paper pinpoints the need to provide higher education to most people as one way of enhancing gender equality and empowerment.

It points out that women with higher education are less likely to get married or have children at an early age. “On average, the fertility rate in Sub-Saharan Africa stands at 6.7 for women without education and less than 3.9 for those with higher education,” says the report.

Higher education not only influences women’s choice of family size but also boosts their confidence and perception of their freedom.

“For instance in Pakistan, while only 30% of women with no education believe they can have a say over the number of their children, the share increases with levels of education, rising to over 70% among women with higher education,” says the report.

If all girls had secondary and university education in Sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia, child marriage by the age of 15 would fall by 64%, from about three million to one million. According to Pauline Rose, director of the Global Monitoring Report, “fewer girls would become pregnant if all girls had higher education”.

HE and improved health

Taking into account that one of the key goals of the proposed development agenda is to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing of all people, the new report also calls for a higher level of education among mothers in order to reduce preventable child deaths.

Apart from boosting child survival, higher education has been linked to healthy habits.

According to the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease 2010 index, highly educated people tended to avoid behaviour related to such diseases as HIV-Aids because they understand the consequences better than their less educated counterparts.

Stressing the importance of education as an important tool of sustainable development, the report points out that by 2000 in the United States, more educated people were less likely to smoke than less educated people by at least 10 percentage points.

Quoting the Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted jointly by the World Health Organization, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the International Institute for Population Sciences and the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the report says that in Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines, people with less than secondary education are more than twice as likely to smoke than those with tertiary education.

HE and sustainability

UNESCO also sees higher education as a fundamental tool towards conservation of scarce resources. Amid concerns of global needs for affordable, reliable and sustainable energy, UNESCO noted that people with higher education tended to save energy and water.

“For instance in rural China, educated farmers were more likely to use rain-harvesting techniques and supplementary irrigation technology to alleviate water shortages,” says the report.

This is the case in most developing countries, where educated households are more likely to use different methods of water purification or boiling. According to the briefing, in Indian urban areas, the probability of water purification increased by over 22% when the most educated person in a household had completed secondary or tertiary education.

By increasing awareness and concern, education can encourage people in developed countries to reduce their impact on the environment by modifying their consumption.

This is taking place in the Netherlands, for example, where people with a higher level of education tend to use less energy, even taking account of their income. “A study of households in 10 countries that are members of the OECD found that those with higher education tended to save water and energy,” says the report.

The importance of higher education in development can partly be explained by differences in education levels between regions.

According to UNESCO, countries with higher education levels tend to enjoy sustainable economic growth in comparison to countries with limited schooling levels that cannot support or promote industrialisation and innovation practice.

Above all, the report identifies higher education as a catalyst to promote human rights, justice and the rule of law. Higher education is also seen as a mechanism that would promote political pluralism, and tolerance.

But as the report points out, the dynamic interplay between education and development would require innovative funding and investments in learning resources.

One critical issue for Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions is that postgraduate students comprise a shrinking fraction of total enrolments. This means that universities are not producing sufficient numbers of the next generation of lecturers and researchers at exactly the time when they should be increasing – in numbers as well as quality.