SDGs and higher education – Leaving many behind

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, replaced the Millennium Development Goals. Education is one of the key aspects of the SDGs, with Goal Four calling for the world to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030, while target 4.7 calls for the development of skills and knowledge "for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles".

Sustainable development cannot be achieved anywhere in the world “without the capacity-building contribution of an innovative higher education system”.

One of the main roles of universities is to build human capital for socio-economic development, eradication of poverty and good governance. Investment in higher education is crucial in order to build more equal societies and maintain stability and peace. Higher education is key to the generation of knowledge, development of scientists, technicians, medical practitioners, professionals, teachers, and government, civil service and business leaders.

Neglect of higher education in the SDGs

Many countries in the developing world, particularly the low-income countries, lack capacity to provide quality higher education. They require support for (re)building and strengthening of their universities and other institutions of higher learning in order to be able to deliver quality education to their populations.

Despite its importance, higher education is neglected in the SDGs. There is nothing in the SDG targets linked to Goal Four – "Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all" – that relates to and provides concrete opportunities for strengthening higher education systems and institutions in low-income countries.

Instead of providing assistance to higher education systems and universities in the developing world, target 4b calls for an increase in scholarships for developing countries “for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries”.

This is similar to the past failed policies and approaches. As part of the neoliberal structural adjustment programmes during the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank pressured African governments – as well as the governments of other developing countries – to prioritise primary and secondary education at the expense of higher education.

It saw higher education as a 'luxury' for the developing world and campaigned against investment in the sector, arguing that it provided insignificant social and economic return.

According to the World Bank, African countries were “better off closing universities at home and training graduates overseas” while investing in basic education. This directly undermined the capacity and ability of many universities to fulfil their mission of teaching, research and engagement.

In recent years, the myth of higher education as a luxury that should not be supported in the developing world has been rejected by its long-term proponents in the global North. Despite this, only 30% of donor funding for higher education goes towards strengthening universities in low income countries, while 70% is spent on scholarships to study in donor countries.

Brain drain

The goal of the SDGs is to take the most talented away from their struggling countries and send them to study abroad. While this is going to be a good opportunity for the selected individuals (as well as a considerable income boost for host universities), it will not do anything to help rebuild higher education capacity in the struggling countries.

Many of those who get scholarships to study in the developed countries through the SDG initiatives, as well as in developing countries such as South Africa, are likely to remain in these countries instead of going back to assist in rebuilding higher education and other institutions in their home countries.

Most developed countries have policies in place that openly aim to 'poach' international students upon graduation through offers of work permits and permanent residence. Even when recipients of scholarships go back home after they graduate, they will go back to dysfunctional higher education systems and institutions as nothing was done to (re)build and strengthen them through SDG projects and programmes.

In addition, while the SDG Goal Four focuses primarily on pre-primary, primary and secondary education, as well as gender equality, none of this can be achieved without quality higher education institutions in the developing world.

The questions remain: How to develop 26 million teachers needed to provide primary education for all in the developing world without quality post-secondary education in the countries facing the acute shortages of qualified teachers? How to achieve gender equality and equal access for the vulnerable people to all levels of education if post-secondary education is not supported in countries that require support and assistance?

The SDGs claim that the proposed plans and actions will ensure that no one is left behind in the world by 2030.

However, many countries and their populations will be left behind through the continued neglect of higher education. The SDGs do not even consider the poor state of higher education systems and institutions in many developing countries, nor do they offer any kind of support to (re)build and strengthen the systems and institutions, which are prerequisites for sustainable development.

Struggling low-income countries need to be supported in the process of developing, rebuilding and strengthening universities and other institutions of higher learning in order to be able to deliver quality education to their populations.

Capacity building through international collaboration in higher education should have been one of the targets, a driver of all capacity-building efforts. Scholarships for studying abroad are important and in many cases necessary but this should have been a minor aspect of a broader plan.

Despite the neglect of higher education in the SDGs, universities and higher education networks from around the world need to find ways to engage with low-income countries and their institutions and assist them in order for them not to be left too far behind by 2030.

Dr Savo Heleta and Tohiera Moodien work in the office for international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The authors presented a paper on this topic at the conference on "The Contribution of Business Schools and Higher Education to Inclusive Development", organised by Stellenbosch University and the UK's University of Bath, in Stellenbosch, South Africa, from 19-20 April 2017.