UN development goals – A bigger role for universities?

There was no role for higher education in the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, the eight ambitious United Nations’ targets for solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, due to expire at the end of 2015. But universities will be expected to be bigger players this time around, according to academics gathered at a recent conference in Barcelona.

In the new Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, education is a stand-alone goal and higher education does get a mention.

The conference brought delegates from universities and civil society in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe to Barcelona, Spain, on 8-9 October, and was organised by the International Association of Universities, or IAU, and Fundació Jaume Bofill, or FJB.

The academics came to review the Framework for Action Education 2030, an implementation blueprint for the SDG on education due to be approved at a UNESCO high-level meeting in early November, and give their verdict on the new post-2015 agenda.

This consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, each broken down into targets, to be met by 2030. SDG4 calls on the world to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. For the first time, there is specific mention of the role of universities.

Target 4.3 demands equal access for all women and men to “affordable and quality” technical, vocational and tertiary education, “including university”.

“It has taken us 15 years to make the world see why higher education should be there as part of a stand-alone goal, so, however modest, this is an achievement,” said Mariana Patru, higher education specialist at UNESCO. She also pointed out that this is the first time that the UN has so clearly stated that inequality in access to higher education is a driver of poverty.

Holistic view

Whereas the previous MDG focused mainly on primary education, academics such as Eva Egron-Polak, secretary-general of the IAU, also welcomed the way the document takes a more holistic view of education, viewing it as a continuum.

Universities have plenty to contribute to the new development agenda, according to the academics gathered in Barcelona.

Higher education can help improve the quality of other parts of the education system. Teacher training, for instance, often takes place at universities, while faculties of education are the ones who conduct research and provide expertise on pedagogy, curricula and assessment as well as educational planning and management.

University research is driving major trends in education, such as the shift to learning outcomes, and “investment priorities in education have been changing because of research by higher education”, according to NV Varghese, director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, India.

The creation of new knowledge by universities does not just benefit education systems. Research can help meet SDGs on other areas such as climate change, food security, nutrition or renewable energy.

The role of universities in educating young people is another significant contribution to economic and social development.

“Most countries are suffering from the economic downturn and young people are suffering from unemployment,” said Limbani Nsapato, regional co-ordinator of the Africa Network Campaign on Education for All.

“Maybe the education system can produce good workers, but we now need to go beyond that as young people need skills to look after themselves and provide jobs for others. This can only happen if they are properly skilled.”

Last but not least, the growth in numbers of young people completing primary education during the last 15 years and the shift to increasing access to secondary education under the new SDG4 will inevitably drive up demand for higher education itself.

Importance of diversity

Growing numbers of students means universities will need to pay more attention to diversity, said Varghese. “With primary education, children stay with their families so the culture is closer, but with higher education, people move to places where the language, cultural ethos or religion may be different – universities expand but the elite culture remains in place,” he said. Universities, especially in developing countries, need help with these issues.

When you add conflict to the mix, the stakes get higher. Kenyan society is still traumatised by the killing of 147 people, mainly students, by al-Shabaab militants at Garissa University College in April this year. The issue of the radicalisation of youth calls for Africa-wide solutions, said Loise Gichuhi, a senior education lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

“There is a lot of recruitment even from our universities and regions are getting divided as teachers are refusing to go to areas they think are unsafe,” she said.

Delegates at the conference saw providing education to children and young people living in or fleeing from zones of conflict as top priority. Duhok University in Iraqi Kurdistan currently has around 1,000 students living on campus as the city’s population has been swollen by the arrival en masse of refugees and internally displaced people, said university vice-president Sabah Wais.

Thirty-four million children and adolescents were out of school in conflict-affected countries in 2012, according to a recent policy paper by UNESCO’s Education For All Global Monitoring Report. It cited various studies that show how access to education can actually reduce the probability of conflict.

Barriers to migrants

This is not just a question for developing countries. “With the refugee situation in Europe at the moment we need to identify what the barriers are to migrants becoming students,” said Viktor Grønne, executive committee member of the European Students’ Union.

“In Denmark you can’t apply for university admission until your refugee status has been settled and that can take up to two years,” he said.

There are also issues with recognition of prior learning. Grønne cites the case of a young Syrian currently in Finland: his records from the University of Damascus have disappeared – “so how can he apply to carry on studying?” he asked.

Two targets of the new SDG on education refer to the need to promote a culture of peace and non-violence and to provide safe learning environments. Gichuhi warns that simply including content on peace building in the education curriculum may not be enough.

A peace education curriculum was introduced to Kenyan primary and secondary schools in 2009, one year after post-election violence caused the deaths of around 1,000 people. “But why do we have the problems we have today if a peace-building curriculum has been in place after 2008?” she asked.

Scholarships controversy

But perhaps the most controversial part of the new education SDG is target 4b, which refers to expanding the number of scholarships available to students from developing countries. The European Students' Union has repeatedly called for changes to this target and has been especially critical of the fact that funding is allowed to come from overseas development assistance.

“So this is money which could have gone into developing education systems at home in developing countries,” said Grønne, “that’s very nice for Germany and France who already spend a lot on scholarships.”

For Nsapato, such scholarships may be acceptable as a strictly short-term measure but the long term sustainable solution has got to be developing higher education capacity nearer to home.

He highlights a second worry – “this can contribute to brain drain as most people who study abroad tend to stay there, but also what I call 'brain damage'; you are learning in an environment that is outside your culture so the skills you acquire may not be applicable when you go home,” he said.

True significance

Both the SDGs and the Education Framework for Action are extremely broad documents, so many academics believe that the true significance of the initiative will become clearer once global and thematic indicators to measure the SDG targets are announced in March 2016.

They also believe that much more needs to be done to publicise the SDGs and in particular to get university leadership on board.

A study by Valtencir Mendes, now head of international projects at Fundació Jaume Bofill, examined 608 examples of best practice in university social responsibility to measure the impact of UN campaigns such as the MDGs and Education For All. He found little impact or even awareness.

“Management especially were not aware of the UN campaigns so it was usually individual academics, people interested in international co-operation, who were involved,” he said, adding that having one major campaign such as the SDGs should make more headway.

Wrapping up the two-day event, Egron-Polak of the IAU summed up the mood of guarded optimism on the conference floor. “We are happy to see that higher education is being seen as an enabling force to meet the SDGs and for our students to be seen as not just preparing for work, but also as critical thinkers and autonomous individuals… but we are also saying please recognise the specificity of higher education within your framework for action,” she said.

Egron-Polak believes that to some extent universities are still seen as a kind of “poor relation in the framework for action – it is as if someone was pushing quite hard to get in but they have only just made it past the door".

“The text on higher education is a work in progress; it is mixed up with TVET [technical and vocational education and training insitutions], the text refers to them as tertiary education as if they were interchangeable.”