Higher education cannot wait for 2030 global goals

Africa cannot wait until 2030 for the next round of global goals to address the urgent need for quality higher education. Despite higher education targets being included within Sustainable Development Goals 4.3, 4.9 and 17, these goals do not address the critical need for improved quality. Rather, they centre on incremental development, enrolment rates, unsustainable practices and international dependency.

African higher education does not have time to linger on ineffective policies.

UNESCO warns that by 2025, 258 million Africans will reach higher education enrolment age. If this explosive student-age population growth could be channelled into higher education, national development across Africa would greatly benefit (Montanini 2013).

However, if Africa and the international community continue an incremental development approach, prioritising basic education before higher education development, the region’s innate talent pool will remain untapped.

Within the policy cycle of the 2015-30 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, only target 4.C offers hope for the mutual development of basic and higher education. Aid agencies and national governments should seize the opportunities within SDG 4.C to build the capacity of Africa’s higher education institutions.

Incremental development

The education development community’s tendency towards incremental development continues to rest on the argument that basic education should be prioritised because it is a prerequisite to higher education.

Nonetheless, in 2008 UNESCO reported that across Sub-Saharan Africa there was a gap between the secondary school completion rate (27%) and a tertiary gross enrolment rate of 6%. This disparity signals that among students with the prerequisites for higher education, access is urgently needed.

Incrementalists argue that higher education is a private good, with a relatively low rate of return on public funds invested. On the contrary, the societal benefits of higher education are positive externalities that spill over as the national gross enrolment rate rises (Bradley 2013).

World Bank economists report that higher education increases salaries, savings, tax revenue, employment rates, social cohesion and technological catch-up. Higher education helps to stem brain drain, bolsters institutions, lowers corruption and improves health (Bloom, Canning and Chan 2006).

These benefits can only be imparted to a society that widely participates in quality higher education, where quality is defined by faculty, facilities and curriculum conditions.

Enrolment, unsustainable practices, dependency

Considering the need for higher education development and its societal benefits, SDG 4.3 and 4.9 mistakenly delay developing quality higher education in favour of enrolment rates, unsustainable practices and international dependency.

Target 4.3 aspires to “ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality” higher education. The goal of increasing access is noble, because by 2012 the OECD’s average gross enrolment ratio was 32% while Sub-Saharan Africa’s was still only 8%. Separated by gender, the ratio was 8% for men and only 5% for women (Montanini 2013).

The problem with target 4.3 is that its three enrolment rate indicators do not explicitly measure gender equality (UNESCO 2015). Since the indicators are the measures of success, they are more important than the target’s vague wording. The discrepancy between the target’s wording and indicators suggests that supporting gender equality is just rhetoric.

Target 4.3’s three indicators focus on enrolment rates instead of quality outcomes. In developing regions, the barrier to “affordable and quality” higher education is not just access, it is supply. Given that gender equality isn’t measured, indicators are entirely quantitative, and “affordable and quality” are touted irrespective of reality. Target 4.3 is only paying lip service to quality higher education development.

Higher education appears again in target 4.9, which aims to increase the number of international scholarships for students from developing countries.

Target 4.9 is careful to ask donors to provide the scholarships that shield the countries sending students from the financial risk of brain drain. Sending scholars abroad for education, without simultaneously developing domestic capacity, is unsustainable and perpetuates international dependency.

The need for skilled workers addressed in target 4.9 is valid, but without complementary policies to develop domestic quality higher education, target 4.9 is another missed opportunity for sustainable higher education development.

Development studies

Ironically, the SDGs most salient acknowledgment of higher education is as an international forum to support development studies.

Under the umbrella of SDG 17, “Partnerships for the Goals”, the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative established an international network of universities that teach development studies (UNESCO 2016).

Along these lines, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova stated: “One of the most important needs today is to have access to international development studies."

While supporting development studies is practical, in the face of population pressures, enrolment disparity, irresolute targets, unsustainable practices and perpetual dependency, developing quality higher education overall is paramount.

Fifteen years ago, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan advocated: “The university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development.” The SDGs have not lent serious support to Annan's call for higher education development.

Teacher training

SDG 4.C presents the continent’s only chance for higher education development within the SDG framework.

Target 4.C, the SDGs’ only target that supports teacher training, presents an opportunity to tie basic and higher education development together by promoting quality teacher colleges. Target 4.C is indicated by the share of active teachers trained in teaching pedagogy.

To achieve target 4.C, existing teacher colleges could petition for funds to modernise their governance, facilities and curricula. Investment in faculty, facilities and curricula will improve quality outcomes. Teacher colleges could also use funds to reach into rural areas and offer industry-relevant skills.

Governments and aid agencies should not supplant the continent’s existing teacher colleges, but instead focus on developing their capacity. Teacher colleges could be leveraged as a primary tool for educational development for Africa’s least developed regions.

Irina Bokova stated that “for too long we have ignored higher education”. Despite the good intentions of the SDGs, which she inaugurated, global aid funding remains zero-sum and basic education has the priority.

Higher education must navigate the SDG limitations and partner with basic education goals to be supported. Despite these challenges, African higher education development has no choice but to push forward – and time is of the essence.

Deren Temel is a masters degree candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. He studies international higher education, focusing on developing regions. This article first appeared online at Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, and has been adapted.

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  • • UNESCO (2015) Thematic Indicators to Monitor the Education 2030 Agenda: Technical Advisory Group Proposal (October 2015). Retrieved from : p.7.
  • • Bradley N (2013) Robbins Revisited: Bigger and better. The Social Market Foundation. Retrieved from:
  • • Bloom D, Canning D and Chan K (2006) Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa. Harvard University: 1-90.
  • • UNESCO (2016) Irina Bokova Lecture at University of Pennsylvania: 4-5. Retrieved from: Retrieved: 2/13/16 paragraph. 2.