Higher education is part of the Agenda 2030 ecosystem

Universities must convince governments and development agencies that higher education is not a luxury but an essential part of the education ecosystem needed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, according to three international networks representing more than 2,000 institutions.

Their call came during a webinar co-organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), L’Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) and the International Association of Universities (IAU) on 23 March, which looked at the pivotal year for higher education and the Agenda 2030 SDGs.

Opening the 90-minute debate between university representatives from Africa, the Caribbean and Europe, Joanna Newman, secretary general of the ACU, said most development agencies still believed their focus should be on primary education or up to Year 12, and many people saw higher education as part of an ivory tower.

“But if you want to have good basic education you need universities to help with pedagogical material, you need to have good teacher training and good departments of education,” she said.

Universities, she claimed, were essential “if you want to have citizens who are willing to challenge and ask questions”, and to develop people “who want to live peacefully with each other and are aware of and comfortable with diversity”.

But too many young people were denied what Newman called the “human right of access to a good education all the way through from primary to tertiary education”.

Access was “very badly distributed” and depended on wealth and geography – with only 8% of young people in Sub-Saharan Africa going on to higher education – while the figure reached over 60% or 70% in parts of the Global North and United States.

Mobility between further education and higher education

Newman said she used the term ‘tertiary education’ deliberately, as many countries still lacked high quality alternatives to studying for a degree for those without the right aptitude for higher education who often failed when they embarked on a university course.

“That’s why I talk about tertiary education and why I believe in mobility from college to university and from university to college,” said Newman, who suggested that the UK and some other countries which had rapidly expanded their university sector, such as Kenya and South Africa, had not got the balance right.

“There’s not a strong enough intersection between further education and higher education, with really good quality FE and courses and apprenticeships as well as university degrees. There needs to be much more movement between the two where you can start in one place and move to the other where appropriate, and vice versa,” she said.

Mobility needed from north to south

On the question of mobility, Francis Aduol, vice-chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya and a member of the ACU, said: “The main reason to be in associations is benchmarking, so you can see what others are doing that we can translate to ourselves. But there is also the benefit from exchange programmes, but it is rather one-way traffic.”

Aduol said one of the strengths of African universities is that many teachers had been educated in the West and in other parts of the world.

“We’ve got teachers from 90 countries with first or second degrees from abroad. This is a big strength,” he said, adding that what is now needed is a two-way flow of people and ideas.
Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the IAU, echoed this point, saying it was a shame there was not more movement from Europe, the United States and Latin America as “Africa has everything to offer”.

She called for “reverse international dynamics”, where instead of people going north, they went south to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals and increase understanding between people living on different continents.

Myriam Moïse, secretary general of Universities Caribbean and associate professor at Université des Antilles, Martinique, agreed that “mobility should be reversed to address the Agenda 2030 priorities”, and said interest was increasing towards the Caribbean region.

She told the webinar that the University of the West Indies is a leading centre for climate change research and that the Caribbean should become a research network to tackle priority issues for the region.

She said her organisation has defined six priorities and has been contacted by partners from the Americas “to provide Caribbean practical solutions to the needs of our region”.

The six priorities are:

• Digital transformation.
• Climate change and environmental justice.
• Public health and chronic diseases.
• Tourism and sustainable development.
• Transportation and logistics.
• And because we have post-colonial societies, issues like race and gender.

Moïse urged universities to develop more projects and links with global organisations to support Agenda 2030 and “invest in our youth as they are the future” by boosting capacity, entrepreneurship, innovation and employability.

Challenges from expansion

Returning to issues facing Africa, Aduol told the webinar that with high school education as well as primary education being declared “free and almost mandatory” in countries like Kenya, many parents wanted their children to go on to higher education.

“So suddenly there has been a big expansion of universities with the number of public universities in Kenya increasing from seven a decade ago to 38 public institutions today.

“How to fund them and ensure you are giving quality education is a challenge, which also faces Uganda and Tanzania and all of East Africa. That’s why we need the three associations represented here – the ACU, AUF and IAU – to benchmark what we are doing,” he said.

Another question is ensuring relevance, with a lot of graduates unable to find suitable employment while some organisations are struggling to find quality graduates to employ.

Blended learning here to stay

Turning to the response to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns and campus closures, Aduol said apart from the struggle to move to online teaching, African universities had tried to prove their relevance by making hand sanitisers, face masks and PPE.

“We also came up with structures that would allow markets to keep on functioning while responding to issues of social distance,” he said, adding that universities had gained “some respect” for helping society directly during times of crisis.

“When we reopened after lockdown in October, most universities went for blended learning and the general view in Kenya is that we don’t see how we can go back to the old ways. Online is much more efficient and a lot of students were surprised that we didn’t do online teaching before.”

Looking at the challenges of meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, Slim Khalbous, rector of the AUF, said governments around the world needed to be reminded over and over again that Agenda 2030 was a “universal agenda” and its goals were just as important for developed countries as they were for emerging economies.

He called on “political actors to influence public and private donors” to invest in higher education and increase international cooperation, and also urged universities to provide solutions to the world’s problems to show that it was money well spent.

Joanna Newman concluded the webinar by saying it was “fantastic” that the three global organisations represented at the webinar were “aligned to create a better world”, and that they would continue to press the case for an “equitable approach” by developing “strong interdisciplinary partnerships” and by raising governmental awareness of the amazing work universities are doing around the world.

Together with associations like Universities Caribbean, the three international higher education networks would urge governments around the world to harness the civic role of universities in a structural way to achieve UN SDGs, she declared.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at