Can aid bring innovation to higher education systems?

Supporting innovation and unplugging potential in higher education in today’s low-income countries going through demographic transition, especially in Africa and South Asia, may be a much tougher challenge than it has been in other parts of the world.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In every other region the transition from high birth and death rates to low ones has been accompanied by rapid rates of per capita income growth and human capacity building, and they have all had a university sector and professions with a lot of capability, according to Mark Lowcock, the UK’s permanent secretary at the Department for International Development.

“And one of the big challenges for countries now going through the transition is the levels of human capacity building are not high. So if it is going to turn into the same really positive experience for the next wave of countries, it will be because we are doing better than we have been in building that human capital, especially in the tertiary sector.”

Lowcock was speaking at a panel debate in London, hosted by Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform or SPHEIR, an innovative project aimed at developing strategic partnerships to catalyse higher education reform in low-income countries The debate, "Transforming Higher Education for Development: The potential of innovative partnerships" was held at the British Council’s offices in London on 31 October.

SPHEIR is managed by a consortium comprised of the British Council, PricewaterhouseCooopers and Universities UK International and is being developed on the premise that if there is to be adequate development of capacity building in low-income countries, new ways to achieve higher education reform are required.

This project will put financial clout, in the form of £45 million (US$56 million) in funding, behind attempts to use international partnerships to explore ways to make breakthroughs in raising the reach and quality of higher education. These partnerships are open to universities and other partners from anywhere in the world.

One of the challenges in low-income countries, where you are trying to grow your university sector, Lowcock says, is “having enough people to teach in your universities, run your universities and supervise the sector, set the regulatory environment and so on”.

Underlining the scale of the challenge, Moses Oketch, professor of International education policy and development at UCL Institute of Education, London, said Sub-Saharan Africa has around 200 million young people aged 15-24 and this figure was set to double by 2045. He said current projections suggest that by 2030 137 million people aged 20-24 will have been to secondary school, but only 12 million will have participated in tertiary education.

He said supporting knowledge and innovation, providing mechanisms for financing higher education and working out how technology can contribute was critically important.

New impetus

This is where SPHEIR can provide a new impetus in several ways.

First it taps into a core benefit of internationalisation – the idea that there is always something to learn from working with other people from other parts of the world – and supports international partnerships to test and develop innovative solutions.

Second, it opens up a pathway to include private sector partners in the mix, tapping a sector that is growing in many parts of the world and which can deliver innovation through technology in particular. Private sector involvement is also critical to addressing employability.

Third, the use of latest technology has enabled some emerging countries to bypass stages of development in some sectors – for instance by-passing cable connections and going straight for mobile, wifi and satellite technology in phones and internet and computer use. In higher education it opens up the possibility of extending reach in a more cost-effective way.

The two initial projects chosen for funding by SPHEIR highlight these aspects. One is a project called the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access or PADILEIA, which aims to address the higher education needs of young refugees displaced by the Syrian crisis and living in Jordan and Lebanon.

Compared to other conflict countries, Syria had a relatively high level of access to higher education before the fighting, with a well-funded largely accessible system and around one in four young Syrians having access to post-secondary education. But fewer than 6% of the 90,000-110,000 Syrian refugees aged 18-22 who are qualified for higher education are enrolled, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates.

The five-year PADILEIA project will provide blended academic programmes, mixing traditional classroom-based learning with massive open online courses or MOOCs, and targeted online learning.

It aims to support young displaced Syrians to integrate into the local workforce and, in the future, help to rebuild Syria post conflict. But will also provide access to higher education for members of the host countries, as is standard practice with refugee projects.

Students will be offered curricula that provide micro-credentials in relevant fields, augmented by student support services and affordable pathways into locally-delivered formal academic qualifications.

This is a more cost-effective way of extending access to education than scholarships, particularly in Jordan where fees at universities are high and have caused Syrian refugees to drop out of courses.

PADILEIA’s lead partner is King’s College London, and other partners include Kiron Open Higher Education gGmbH (Germany), FutureLearn (UK), Al al-Bayt University (Jordan), and the American University of Beirut (Lebanon).

A second project to get funding aims to improve the quality of the health workforce in Somaliland, where just 197 doctors, 1,256 nurses and 344 midwives serve a population of 3.5 million. The project will help to build the capacity of higher education institutions to produce healthcare graduates with the necessary knowledge, skills and competences to enter practice at an effective level.

It will also do this by using technology-enhanced and blended learning to reach current students, faculty and clinicians to make them better ‘prepared for practice’, and create a postgraduate environment that supports continued interactive professional development and learning.

The Prepared for Practice project is also lead by King’s College London, and other partners include Amoud University and Edna Aden University and Teaching Hospital and University of Hargeisa (all in Somaliland), Medicine Africa and the Tropical Health and Education Trust (both UK-based).

Diverse partnerships

The model of using mixed partnerships comprising international and local institutions or other partners, and learning programmes, technology-based and classroom-based learning is similar to pioneering projects run by members of an evolving international consortium for connected learning for refugees, which is supported by the Innovation Learn Lab of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

The consortium’s leading member organisations include Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, Australian Catholic University, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins and InZone – University of Geneva, but also universities such as Kenyatta and Moi in Kenya, and private sector foundations such as Kepler and the Vodafone Foundation.

It too seeks to develop evidence for the usefulness of new modes of delivery of higher education to widen access to refugees and other young people who have previously been denied either a pathway to or access to higher education, in order to develop models that could be scaled up.

The difference is that the SPHEIR programme provides a high level of guaranteed funding per project – £1 million to £5 million each for two to four years – instead of relying purely on small-scale funding and donation of time by higher education institutions.

Questions of impact

At the panel discussion in London there was positive feedback about the new directions in which the Department for International Development’s project was taking aid to higher education but also questions about how you ensure they make an impact and ensure relevance and quality.

Rosalind Kainyah MBE, managing director of Kina Advisory Ltd, said: “What excites me about this programme is the intentional recognition of the important part the private sector can play in developing education in emerging economies.”

Sir Ciarán Devane, CEO of the British Council, said for partnerships to make a lasting impact it is important to institutionalise them. He said constructing intelligent partnerships “where each partner brings something distinctive across boundary and area of expertise” is key and being able to demonstrate that impact over time is the ultimate criterion [for inclusion in SPHEIR].

Tanya Popeau, a UN consultant, who previously worked for Royal Holloway, University of London, where she developed partnerships with BP and Mercedes Benz, said a key factor in any partnership, whether with private sector or other partners is ensuring you work with all partners from the earliest stage to design innovative programmes with them.

Peter Horrocks CBE, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said face-to-face staff and student exchanges are crucially important but, to be able to deliver relevance and affordability at scale, digital and technology-enabled learning are “absolutely critical”.

He said the Open University and other distance learning universities around the world had shown that it was possible to deliver at “absolutely appropriate quality standards”.

“A number of the techniques we are used to using with our open learning platforms – peer to peer support, communities of learners, being able to create global or continent wide learning experiences using technologies – is the key to making this cost effective and successful.”

He added that working with both international potential employers and local employers, and using this as an opportunity to create different kinds of university delivery is crucial.

“We shouldn’t be thinking simply about exporting our own concept of what university is. It should be done in a different way that builds the technology element in from the beginning and doesn’t rely on international exchange and travel as a key way in which intellectual capital will be built in future.”