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Higher education should be central to the international development agenda

  • 3 January 2024
  • By Colin Riordan
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Colin Riordan, Secretary General and Chief Executive Professor of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

On 20 November, at the Global Food Security Summit in London, the Government launched a White Paper on international development entitled ‘International development in a contested world: ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change’. Much of what was outlined in the paper is welcome, including a commitment to scaling up climate adaptation spending and promoting universal access to health and education services, as well as the unambiguous declaration that ‘all young people, especially women and girls, should have the opportunity to access higher education and skills training’.

In addition, we also welcome the government’s explicit desire to ‘deepen co-operation within the Commonwealth’. The paper included a preface from the newly appointed Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, in which he states that ‘today’s answer cannot be about rich countries “doing development” to others. We need to work together as partners, shaping narratives which developing countries own and deliver.’

As welcome as many of the proposals within the paper are, what the development community would like to see is renewed commitment to the UN guidance on overseas development aid (ODA) spending of 0.7% of Gross National Income, as soon as economic circumstances allow.

ODA funding can be targeted towards addressing development issues and building capacity that will support sustainable development. An example of this is the ACU’s Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) programme, which is ODA funded by the FCDO and the Australian government. Through PEBL we partnered with universities in East and West Africa to deliver online and blended learning, helping to meet demand for higher education. So far 1,500 academics and over 3,800 students have been trained through the PEBL West Africa programme. In East Africa over 3,400 lecturers were trained at participating universities in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania and 40,000 students accessed the online courses that were developed.

Whilst the white paper did include a recognition that ‘access to higher education and skills will lead to better opportunities and contribute to more inclusive growth and prosperity’, we would like to see higher education at the forefront of the government’s development agenda. It is higher education that will, more than any other sector, strengthen capacity building in developing nations and allow the UK to form more equitable partnerships, moving beyond the donor-recipient model referred to by Lord Cameron. Indeed, without sufficient investment in higher education capacity within developing nations, this outdated and problematic dynamic is likely to persist.  By way of contrast, the ACU’s Equitable Research Partnership toolkit, launched earlier this year, is already helping to foster more equitable international research collaboration across the globe.

A report released in 2021 investigating the role of international higher education partnerships in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), commissioned by the Association of Commonwealth Universities in partnership with the British Council, identified 110 examples of such partnerships that have made significant contributions towards the SDGs.

It found that international higher education partnerships are better equipped than single organisations to contribute to the SDGs, deliver better value for donors and are an effective vehicle for ODA spending that can engage across sectors to include NGOs, corporations, and regulatory bodies. Furthermore, they encourage students, academics, industry and wider society to share knowledge and ideas, as well as driving research and innovation and building skills through teaching and learning and in practice. The report shows that higher education institutions and national sectors play a critical role in both training future experts and leaders and generating research as evidence and policy advice.

Results from our ACU Measures Supporting Research survey, published earlier this year, showed the high priority that many of our members assign to sustainable development. Of the 95 ACU members surveyed, 93% of respondents had an institution-wide research strategy. Of those, 78% identified the SDGs or local environment (water, energy, agriculture, etc.) as key priorities for organising research at the institutional level.

Higher education partnerships drive sustainable development across all SDGs by increasing educational attainment, improving equity in educational outcomes and graduate employability, producing and applying research, and providing benefits at the local, national, and international levels.

Higher education must be at the centre of development efforts. It is the foundation on which real, sustainable improvements will be built, and the government should take this into account in its planning for the future.

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1 comment

  1. Richard Heller says:

    Congratulations on this post and the wonderful example of the PEBL programme. It just the kind of programme that answers the plea for a network for global online learning I hope that ACU will build on and extend their work to help correct the global inequalities in access to higher education.

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