Higher education on the road to 2030

   By Michaela Martin, IIEP-UNESCO


Higher education plays an important, multi-faceted role in the new global development agenda, which strives to eradicate poverty while addressing social needs such as education, health, social protection, job opportunities, climate change and environmental protection. All of these areas, and more, are reflected in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Campuses worldwide are slated to play a crucial role in driving this ambitious agenda towards success. They can provide the advanced human resources and knowledge needed to address the complex challenges related to sustainable development. The strength of higher education institutions lies in their interdisciplinary teaching and research, and in their capacity to develop innovative solutions to global and local problems. Overall, higher education is a pillar to the whole education system through its teacher training and educational research functions.

Education 2030 is much broader than the earlier Millennium Development Goals, which focused on primary education and gender equality. SDG 4, the overarching goal of Education 2030, aims at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. More precisely, SDG 4 insists on 12 years of free, publicly available basic and secondary education, of which nine years are compulsory. It pleads for an integrated education system, which views higher education as part of a life-long learning system. And two targets specifically mention higher education, with target 4.3 saying that by 2030, equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university should be ensured.

But SDG 4 also raises questions for higher education 

A recent Policy Paper on Higher Education by the Global Education Monitoring report and IIEP discusses some of the implications that the SDG target has for higher education. For example, equal access can imply an equality of rights or an equality of opportunity approach. The former one is blind to cultural, social and economic differences and disadvantage while the second one pleads for affirmative action policies. Countries will need to decide which approach they take according to their particular circumstances, but the Policy Paper recommends that, while affirmative action is controversial, it may be necessary in contexts with deeply entrenched inequalities to rapidly redress them.

The paper also discusses the notion of affordable higher education. Affordability means that existing tuition and living costs are not an obstacle to access, participation and success of qualified applicants. Yes, given the rapid expansion of higher education and the inability of the State in many countries to create study places, an increasing share of the higher education cost has been shifted to households, including the poorer ones whose children often access higher education as the first generation. This basically asks the question of who should pay for higher education, and what contribution can be expected from students and families from modest backgrounds. Income contingent student loans with acceptable repayment plans appear as a solution that combines financial sustainability with affordability. The paper pleads for income contingent loans, but it also suggest that repayments should not be higher than 15 per cent of the gross salary of a former student. 

And there is of course no universal definition of quality higher education. Countries, through their national quality assurance systems, higher education institutions and professors need to define quality in regards to disciplinary, institutional, local and national circumstances. As a consequence, it is difficult to provide international guidance that goes beyond existing international codes of good practices that are generally very generic.   

Higher education institutions need to further mobilize for the SDGs 

The future direction that the SDGs present to higher education is open to many national and institutional choices, but it clearly positions higher education as a lever for sustainable development. The 17 SDGs require strong international cooperation in both teaching and research that can help identify innovative solutions to ecological and societal challenges. Higher education institutions need to develop a holistic institutional approach to sustainable development, comprising teaching, research and ecologically sound functioning. Several global level north-south university networks do exist already, and some universities have already taken action to systematically integrate issues related to sustainable development in their teaching and research. But many others still need to be better informed of the SDGs, and they also have to mobilize their academic communities to fully engage in this global agenda. This is especially the case for universities in industrialized countries and for those not well-versed in the UN discourse and policy agenda circles. 

Funding bodies for higher education also need to fully recognize the role that higher education institutions can play in the implementation of the SDGs. This includes targeted scholarship programmes and funding opportunities that foster inter-university collaboration for the development of research and training in SDG related areas. 


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