Africa can’t wait until 2030 for the next round of United Nations Global Goals to address the urgent need for quality higher education. Despite including higher ed targets within Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4.3, 4.9, and 17, these goals do not address the critical need for quality higher ed in the region. Rather they center on incremental development, enrollment rates, unsustainable practices and international dependency.
African higher education doesn’t have time to linger on ineffective policies. UNESCO warns that, by 2025, 258 million Africans will reach the higher education enrollment age. If this explosive student-age population growth could be channeled into higher education, national development across Africa would greatly benefit. However, if the international community continues its incremental development approach, prioritizing basic education before higher ed development, the region’s innate talent pool will remain untapped. Within the SDG’s 2015-2030 policy cycle only target 4.C offers hope for the mutual development of basic and higher education. Aid agencies and national governments should seize the opportunities within SDG 4.C to build of the capacity of Africa’s higher education institutes.
The education development community’s tendency toward incremental development rests on the argument that basic education should be prioritized because it is a prerequisite to higher education. Nonetheless, in 2008, UNESCO reported that across Sub-Saharan Africa there was a gap between the secondary school completion rate (27 percent) and tertiary gross enrollment rate (GER) (6 percent). This disparity signals that among students with the prerequisites for higher ed, access is urgently needed.
Incrementalists argue that higher education is a private good, with a relatively low rate of return on public funds invested. On the contrary, the societal benefits of higher education are positive externalities that spill over as the national GER rises. World Bank economists report that higher ed increases salaries, savings, tax revenue, employment rates, social cohesion and technological catch-up. Higher ed stems brain drain, bolsters institutions, lowers corruption, and improves health.
These benefits can only be imparted to a society that widely participates in quality higher education, where quality is defined by faculty, facilities, and curriculum conditions. Considering the need for higher ed development and its societal benefits, SDG 4.3 and 4.9 mistakenly delays developing quality higher in favor of enrollments rates, unsustainable practices and international dependency.
Target 4.3 aspires to “ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality [higher education].” The goal of increasing access is noble, for in 2012 the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development’s average GER was 32 percent, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s was only 8 percent. Separated by gender, GER was 8 percent for men and only 5 percent for women. The problem with target 4.3 is that its three enrollment rate indicators do not explicitly measure gender equality. Since the indicators are the measures of success, they are more important than the target’s vague wording.
The discrepancy between the target’s wording and indicators suggests that supporting gender equality is just rhetoric. Target 4.3’s three indicators focus on enrollment rates instead of quality outcomes. In developing regions, the barrier to “affordable and quality” higher education is not just access, it is supply. Given that gender equality isn’t measured, indicators are entirely quantitative, and “affordable and quality” are touted irrespective of reality. Target 4.3 is only paying lip service to quality higher education development.
Higher education appears again in target 4.9, which aims to increase the number of international scholarships for students from developing countries. Target 4.9 is careful to ask donors to provide the scholarships, shielding the countries ending students from the financial risk of brain drain. Sending scholars abroad for education, without simultaneously developing domestic capacity, is unsustainable and perpetuates international dependency. The need for skilled workers addressed in target 4.9 is valid, but without complementary policies to develop domestic quality higher education, target 4.9 is another missed opportunity for sustainable higher education development.
Ironically, the SDG’s most salient acknowledgment of higher education is as an international forum to support development studies. Under the umbrella of SDG 17, “Partnerships for the Goals,” the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative established an international network of universities that teach development studies. Along these lines, UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova stated, “One of the most important needs today is to have access to international development studies.”
While supporting development studies is practical, in the face of population pressures, enrollment disparity, irresolute targets, unsustainable practices and perpetual dependency, developing quality higher education overall is paramount. Fifteen years ago, Kofi Annan advocated, “The university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development.” The SDGs haven’t lent serious support to Annan’s call for higher education development. SDG 4.C presents the continent’s only chance for higher education development within the SDG framework.
Target 4.C, the SDG’s only target that supports teacher training, presents an opportunity to tie basic and higher ed development together by promoting quality teachers’ colleges. Target 4.C is indicated by the share of active teachers trained in teaching pedagogy. To achieve target 4.C, existing teachers’ colleges could petition for funds to modernize their governance, facilities, and curricula.
Investment in faculty, facilities, and curriculum will improve quality outcomes. Teachers’ colleges could use these funds to reach into rural areas and offer industry-relevant skills. I advise aid agencies not to supplant the continent’s existing teachers’ colleges, but instead to focus on developing their capacity. The teachers’ college could be leveraged as a primary tool for educational development for Africa’s least developed regions.
Bokova sympathized that, “for too long we have ignored higher education.” Despite the good intentions of the SDGs, which she inaugurated, global aid funding remains zero-sum and basic education has the priority. Higher education must navigate the SDG’s limitations and partner with basic education goals to be supported. Despite these challenges, African higher education development has no choice but to push forward — time is of the essence.
Deren Temel is a master’s candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s International Education Development Program. He focuses on higher educational development within developing regions.