The absence of higher education in debates around the international education agenda may mask the relative importance of the sector for international development assistance and no longer reflect the political priorities of developing countries.
Over the past decades, a consensus has grown to prioritize universal basic education and, increasingly, preschool education. Such a consensus emerges from the international community’s commitment to upholding the right to education and is based on the evidence of the rate of return to universal basic education.
This primary emphasis has placed higher education on the fringes of international development policy debates.
However, The data shows that higher education is the education sub-sector that benefits the most from international aid, well beyond basic and secondary education: in 2017, a third of official development assistance in favor of education went to post-secondary education.
This fact may seem surprising at first glance, given that international debates mainly focus on basic education. And yet it is an indication of several converging facts.
On the one hand, in developing countries, the proportion of each cohort that accesses higher education each year varies from 9% in sub-Saharan Africa to 52% in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to UNESCO data on target 4.3 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 for 2018.
These numbers may still seem low, but in Martin Trow’s founding ranking, they indicate the transition from elite higher education to mass higher education – with 50% of gross enrollments taken to indicate a country’s entry into the so-called universal stage of higher education.
Indeed, effective universal access to higher education can be seen as a dimension of the right to education and lifelong learning opportunities, the UNESCO International Institute for Teaching superior complaints.
On the other hand, recent evidence suggests that the return on investment in higher education is not only relatively high for the individual but also for society and the economy as a whole, with some researchers claiming that private and public returns are of equal size.
Public investment in higher education creates well-documented externalities which, among other things, contribute to socio-economic development through health and civic outcomes, not to mention the direct effect on the labor market and a resulting environment. which is more oriented towards knowledge-based economies.
However, these economic analyzes do not give the complete picture. No other education sub-sector has more potential than higher education to contribute to each Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), mainly through the three combined missions pursued by universities: teaching, research and contribution to social and economic development.
In addition to this, developing countries need to expand their professional and scientific capacities, both in the public and private sectors, to generate and manage their socio-economic development pathways; again, no other sub-sector is better placed to do so than higher education.
More so, during the pandemic, countries are reminded of their public responsibility to higher education. As requested in a recent appeal to African Ministers of Higher Education by the Secretary General of the Association of African Universities, governments have a duty to strengthen their higher education institutions “by making them ready for the future and able to survive and prosper in the future. a world of uncertainty ”.
Decreased presence in international debates
Nevertheless, the reduced presence of higher education in international debates on educational development is, first and foremost, a serious constraint on its future development.
First, it prevents the international community from considering higher education as a lever for development, with significant effects, through training and research, on health and education, the two cornerstones of development.
Second, it reduces opportunities for multilateral cooperation, especially South-South, and the creation of regional networks that can promote peer learning and collaboration.
Finally, instead of having a transparent conversation about the dynamics of North-South cooperation in higher education, and the international education industry that often causes it, it prevents multilateralism from fueling the debates. and promote disruptive concepts such as open science or open knowledge.
In addition, it reduces the possibilities of creating cooperative efforts to address the most pressing challenges facing higher education in developing countries through peer learning and joint capacity development.
Quality and fairness
Indeed, there is an urgent need to support countries’ reform efforts to address their most pressing challenges. Two of them are two sides of the same coin: quality and fairness.
The expansion of the supply of higher education, with many states not offering an adequate supply, has led to the proliferation of low-cost and poor-quality private institutions. The many avenues that could lead to better quality assurance and regulatory arrangements depend on capacity development efforts, mainly focused on public governance of higher education.
The relatively high raw numbers of tertiary education enrollments mask deep inequalities that persist even as countries become middle-income countries, with striking differences between socio-economic strata, gender, ethnicity and location. .
The pandemic brought to the fore two other challenges that were already there.
One is innovation in teaching and learning. The growing importance of connectivity cannot be underestimated: on the one hand, it is an opportunity for many institutions to take a leap forward in teaching methods through educational innovations supported by technology; and, on the other hand, it can strengthen regional virtual cooperation.
However, the adoption of technology and wider connectivity only creates an enabling environment that can only become fertile if capacity development efforts are successful.
A second challenge is internationalization, where the pandemic has given rise to virtual student mobility formats.
These new formats could pave the way for a radical reconsideration of mobility, where the current emphasis on quality assurance and mutual recognition, reflected in several global and regional conventions promoted by UNESCO, could be complemented by an equity dimension.
For example, a more sustainable and rational approach to mobility can extend its benefits beyond the elites, and regional efforts could rebalance the direction of travel, contributing to the consolidation of regional knowledge and research spaces, such as a recent Institute UNESCO International for Higher Education report revealed.
The pandemic will undoubtedly have a negative impact on international aid for the development of education, and the resulting context may make it even more difficult than before to rethink whether higher education should be a priority in the debates and the strategies that flow from them – at least at first glance.
A more thoughtful approach would examine what might be the effects of not integrating higher education into the international development agenda, not only for economic recovery and development, but also for equity in post-graduate higher education. pandemic.
Francesc Pedró is Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is taken from the World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) publication “Perspectives on the Challenges of Access and Equity in Higher Education Across the World in the Context of COVID ”, which will be launched on September 24 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (GMT). The post is a collection of 17 articles from the WAHED 24 event on November 17, 2020 and sets the stage for this year’s WAHED on November 17, 2021. To register for this FREE online event, please click here.