CESA, not SDG4 – A guide for the continent’s aspirations

In a number of my articles and at different events, I have highlighted what I regard as the tenuous stance on higher education taken by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), even though my critiques have been tempered by the fact that the SDGs are more favourable to higher education than the erstwhile Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In this article I analyse SDG4, which deliberates on education, and contrast it with the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 (CESA) which unequivocally places higher education at the centre of the continent’s development. The article was triggered by a recent dialogue at the Pan-African Conference on Education in Nairobi organised by UNESCO, the African Union Commission (AUC) and the Kenyan government.

The architects of SDG4 and CESA – UNESCO and the AUC – are currently gearing up to cooperate closely in implementing the goals. Following a UNESCO presentation which listed “SDG4 Education 2030 Steering Committee members”, I raised the question of why universities – which are declared key to development – were missing from the list. The response was that “higher education is included in lifelong learning”.

SDG4 – The tenuous link

Goal 4 is one of the 17 SDGs that refers (only barely) to higher education. It reads: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” and sets 10 targets, of which only two relate to higher education:
  • • 4.3: By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university;

  • • 4.b: By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries.
Under point 4.3, the document speaks of equal access, and not about expanding access or revitalising the weak sector and the word “university” seems to appear as an afterthought. Sub-section 4.b. speaks only about increasing enrolments through scholarships. Given that the system currently contains close to 20 million students, this is a feeble, if not irrelevant, intervention for Africa. In summary, Goal 4 is silent on the numerous and complex issues and challenges facing higher education in Africa.

“Higher education” and “university” appear in the SDGs only once each, and university, as an afterthought. “Research and innovation” collectively appears 15 times and “research” which appears eight times refers to clean energy, agriculture, and marine technology.

Enhancing scientific research and increasing scientific knowledge are also mentioned but are scattered across the targets, none of which are in the section on (higher) education. It is intriguing that universities, which are major centres of research in Africa, are basically ignored, while their elements and activities are spread around the document.

It is important to recall that in 2009, UNESCO declared that, “At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity. The past decade provides evidence that higher education and research contribute to the eradication of poverty, to sustainable development and to progress towards reaching the internationally agreed upon development goals.”

This conviction did not extend to the SDGs in 2015.

CESA – A robust blueprint

According to CESA, virtually all development players now concur that for meaningful and sustainable economic growth to be achieved, tertiary education must be central to any national development agenda. Countries around the world are striving to build this sector either under pressure, as is the case in Africa, or as a priority in their strategic development plans, as in developed and emerging countries.

It is clear that building a tertiary education system is no longer a luxury that African countries were once chastised for indulging in, but a critical imperative for national development and global competitiveness.

CESA goes on to state that higher education provides a conducive environment for the development of science, technology and innovation and exploitation of its full potential to support sustainable growth and socio-economic development. Furthermore, African universities are called on to engage in quality knowledge production in order to enhance their countries’ competitive edge in the global process of research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Strategic Objective 9 of CESA states: “Revitalise and expand tertiary education, research and innovation to address continental challenges and promote global competitiveness”.

It identifies eight elements deemed necessary to achieve this, including allocating 1% of GDP to research and innovation; creating conducive environments for research and innovation through the provision of adequate infrastructure and resources; linking research to the development of priority areas and enhancement of global competiveness; consolidating and expanding centres of excellence; promoting international research and development cooperation; and strengthening quality (post)graduate and post-doctoral education, among others.

Looking ahead

Following the dialogue at the Pan-African Conference on Education, I had several constructive engagements and look forward to more robust ones in the future.

Nonetheless, I felt the need to write this piece to strongly advise all those involved and seriously interested in African higher education development to read from the CESA book which directly and explicitly speaks to the needs of the continent as regards higher education, instead of the SDGs.

This is particularly important given the Nairobi communiqué following the conference which calls for closer cooperation between UNESCO and the AUC.

While I have been advised on a number of occasions that the SDGs must be read in their entirety as the role of higher education and universities is scattered among the different goals, I find this argument tenuous at best and without much credence given the declaration of higher education as “key”, “critical”, “unambiguous”, “core”, and “central” to the development of the continent.

The need for tenacity

Unfortunately, Africa continues to rely massively on external development partners to fund research and innovation in its universities. These external entities often use the SDGs as blueprints in developing and executing their cooperation policies and strategies; hence, the effort to encourage them rather to refer to CESA in promoting higher education development in Africa.

Until such time that African countries fully depend on their own resources to fund higher education development, the impact of regimes such as the SDGs that are not fully attuned to Africa’s development path could continue. This calls for the need to relentlessly and vigorously affirm the critical importance of higher education to the continent.


It was hoped that the SDGs would situate higher education in its rightful position to realise social and economic advancement, poverty reduction and wealth creation, and global sustainable development, as affirmed by agencies such as the African Development Bank, the World Bank and OECD among others, including UNESCO, the architect of this global development blueprint.

However, like the MDGs, they marginalise higher education and neglect the firmly and expressly stated positions and views of development players which describe it as key, critical, core, and central.

UNESCO and the AUC have agreed to collaboratively implement their respective development blueprints. While this is a commendable first step, it is imperative that the CESA position on higher education guides such collaboration as it unambiguously conveys the aspirations of the continent.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at and