DFID project attempts to catalyse change in HE systems

A consortium has launched an open call for proposals for an ambitious initiative funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, or DFID, aimed at catalysing innovation and reform in higher education systems in developing countries, including fragile and conflict-affected states.

The project, Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform or SPHEIR, is managed by a consortium comprised of the British Council, PricewaterhouseCooopers and Universities UK International.

The initiative aimed at transforming higher education systems, represents a new direction for DFID, which has previously focused its education funding on basic and primary education in line with the Millennium Development Goals.

Robert Monro, engagement and outreach manager for the British Council, said the Millennium Development Goal or MDG of achieving universal primary education by 2015 set in 2000 was based on research showing you get a better rate of return on investing in primary education, and “almost all donors focused on basic education for the next 15 years and higher education did not get a look in”.

He said when DFID looked at what it could do to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals that followed the MDGs, it concluded that it could be more effective in interventions in higher education if it focused at a systemic level rather than university department level where it was funding small-scale projects costing tens of thousands of pounds.

“It is new in the sense that it has not been done in the past 15 years,” he said.

The aim of the project is to form collaborative partnerships, not of individual university departments, as has happened before, but of groups of organisations that “address higher education in ways and at a scale that a single organisation cannot”.

The objective is to achieve systemic change through either the design and delivery of degree programmes and-or via “enhancing higher education systems and institutions by changing the culture and practices that affect the performance of public or private universities”.

The total budget has been reported at between £40 million (US$49 million) and £50 million (US$61 million), although DFID is not confirming the actual figure, and to stand a chance of success each proposal must be for a project costing between £1 million and £5 million over two to four years. Previously, the type of project that got funded was a partnership between departments worth around £60,000 over three years.

Monro said some proposals costing more than £5 million will be considered if there is evidence of catalytic “systemic” transformation, for instance where all higher education institutions in a country would be impacted, or where reforms in one or more universities will holistically impact all programmes from undergraduate level through to doctoral education for the life of the project.

“We are prepared to take a level of risk to reap reward,” Monro said. This meant that it was accepted that some good ideas would not prove effective in practice, but DFID was prepared to back good ideas even if they cost £5 million, even if ultimately there was a risk of failure.

All partner organisations are expected to contribute in kind or with cash.

The target countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Pakistan in Asia, Yemen and Occupied Palestinian Territories and 17 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The target countries do not include India and South Africa, which are considered middle-income countries, as beneficiaries, although they could be involved in partnerships as contributors.

“Some of the countries that have been involved in transition in their recent past would be relevant,” said Monro. "So it is acceptable to use partners in South Africa or India, if their experience is useful.”

Conflict-affected countries

As is encouraged by the list of target countries, SPHEIR funds can be used to fund projects in fragile and conflict-affected countries, but organisations interested in doing that should discuss the security risk with the project before submitting the proposal once they have formed their idea, the British Council said.

SPHEIR projects can benefit from British Council security arrangements on the ground. But Monro said: “If it is obvious to us that the applicant does not recognise or have any ideas about how to manage security risks, we will caution them to think seriously about this before proceeding with their proposal.”

DFID has been scaling up its focus on fragile and conflict-affected states, which are prone to greater levels of poverty, since 2010, following a cross-government Strategic Defence and Security Review – a reflection of the reality that poverty contributes to fragility and the conditions in which conflict can emerge.

But it has attempted to switch its focus at such a speed – by 2015 30% of DFID’s budget was being devoted to fragile and conflict-affected countries – that it has come in for criticism for progressing out of step with its capacity and expecting results too quickly.

Monro said SPHEIR is looking to fund initiatives that will enhance quality, ensure relevance, broaden access and improve affordability.

Enhancing quality can include improving course content, diversifying delivery strategies, strengthening pedagogical skills, training and retraining qualified staff and systemic reforms such as accreditation, quality assurance and institutional governance.

Ensuring relevance includes providing graduate pathways to employment, self-employment or further learning; engaging employers in course design and delivery; providing student experiences outside the university and bringing expertise into the university; and using employers and graduates to inform desired graduate competencies and understand potential career or educational trajectories.

Broadening access covers widening access for women, students from poor families, remote or rural communities or groups that face barriers to participation, for instance physical or cultural barriers. It also involves monitoring and intervening to ensure retention and programme completion, and establishing ways to enhance access for particular groups across entire university systems.

Improving affordability includes maximising efficiency and effectiveness of public spending; providing student financing schemes, whether university specific, private sector investment or system-wide strategies; special financing mechanisms for students who face particular barriers to entry, retention and completion; holistic system governance and administration mechanisms; and higher education leadership, for instance resource management and mobilisation, pedagogical development and knowledge systems.

Amina Adewusi, an independent consultant working with PricewaterhouseCooopers, said the initiative is trying to encourage new actors to get involved, including from the private sector, whether universities, financiers or suppliers. This might include, for instance, technology suppliers of mobile apps or means to encourage distance or blended learning.

“We want to make a serious difference to higher education at a systematic level,” said Monro.