From MDGs to SDGs: The role of international higher education

From MDGs to SDGs: The role of international higher education

A new global sustainability agenda was adopted by the United Nations in September, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to be reached by 2030! How will this be possible taking into account the challenges in reaching the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are about to expire by the end of the year? This challenge was discussed 7−9 October at the annual African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE) conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

Marit Egner, Board member of the EAIE, and I, Vice-Chair of the Expert Community Educational Cooperation with Developing Countries (EDC), attended the conference on behalf of the EAIE. Around 250 participants from over 20 different African countries and seven EU countries came together for three days to discuss the role of higher education institutions (HEIs) in accomplishing the SDGs by 2030.

The shift from MDGs to SDGs

The shift from MDGs to SDGs was extensively discussed. Most speakers first analysed MDGs and then compared them to SDGs. Some important remarks/conclusions concerning the MDGs were:

  • Many African universities lacked capacity to sufficiently support working towards the MDGs, but poverty in developing countries went down from 43% in 1990 to 21% in 2010, which is a significant achievement.
  • MDGs , like SDGs, are about fighting poverty. However, the focus on primary education wasn’t sufficient, while secondary and tertiary education were to a large extent ignored.
  • There are many best practices developed in the MDG-era; Some African HEIs have hosted successful business start-ups in their incubation units, developed free open source application software, etc.

It can generally be concluded that, within HEIs, there are good examples of what the MDGs have triggered and set in motion. However, they were insufficiently involved in or ascribed a clear role in the development process.

Towards the SDGs

Many discussions took place regarding the role of higher education in the new development framework. This was a difficult discussion, as it’s a universal agenda which will inevitably face slightly different prioritisations in different geographic regions. People did express their concerns as to the number of SDGs and that there might be too many. Nevertheless, participants tried to look at how the SDGs could translate to the reality of HEIs in Africa. Some outcomes of the discussions were:

  • More South-South cooperation is needed as well as cooperation with the North. Global partnerships are crucial for capacity building, but they should be equal and built on mutual benefit.
  • There’s increasing pressure for investment in information and communications technology in order for African HEIs to be able to fulfil their role better, so that students and teachers can access the information they need, and to facilitate the sharing of knowledge .
  • It’s important to focus on the SDGs and targets where HEIs can make a difference in the local and global environment towards sustainable development.
  • The role of HEIs in Africa is a global one. They are the innovators, anchors, shapers, they provide the mechanism to build nations and they need to be recognised by other nations across the world of internationalisation in higher education. At the same time, they can use Europe’s 2020 agenda and the African 2063 agenda in order to improve their ability to better support the new development agenda.
  • HEIs should go through their mission statements and curricula and see if it’s aligned with the targets underpinning the SDGs.
  • Stronger partnerships are important in taking the inclusive agenda forward. HEIs must be proactive and build stronger links with all actors – not only other HEIs, but also with governments, civil society and industry.

Marit Egner, one of the key speakers, also stressed new avenues for cooperation and partnering with the Global North:

  • The EU is no longer a ‘global donor’, but an equal partner. African HEIs can apply for projects under Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, so long as they have European partners.
  • The sharing culture: Creative Commons for Licencing, Open Sources for Programming, Open Access publications, Open Educational Resources, MOOCs and Open Data from publicly funded research.

Strengthening African HEIs to support the SDGs

I attended a workshop aimed at bringing international office practitioners in Africa together to share best practices. The background of this workshop is that African Universities have mainly responded to internationalisation in an ad hoc manner, without establishing well-structured international offices. Two examples of successful international offices in Morocco and Kenya were presented and decisions on issues such as having a centralised or decentralised international office, partnerships, tasks, responsibilities, competencies, etc were highlighted as crucial. A well-structured international office is key for an HEI to become a strong and sustainable global actor that can make a difference towards the realisation of the SDGs.

An important outcome of this workshop was the realisation that there’s a need for a Special Interest Group (SIG) on international offices in Africa, which will begin taking shape within ANIE following this conference. Other professional associations like the EAIE were pointed out as platforms to help institutions professionalise their international offices.

Outcomes and new roles

Reform and hard work are needed to strengthen HEIs in Africa and build capacity to be stronger drivers of development. Yet they are not alone. The Sustainable Development Goals also challenge the European higher education sector and HEIs globally to increase collaboration and work in partnership. A shift in thinking is required everywhere: not only in terms of the curricula, but also in terms of research. We need to share the knowledge and information we have with the rest of the world in order to find new, sustainable and responsive ways of working.

We need to be global actors of sustainable development and work together, starting with our own HEIs. The ANIE conference demonstrated that a fruitful exchange and collaboration across continents and actors, including regional actors such as ANIE and the EAIE, is important. Such actors are in a good position to facilitate constructive discussions and coordinate actions relating to the role of higher education in support of the post-2015 development agenda.

For more information on the ANIE conference programme, visit their website. For further information on the Sustainable Development Goals, make sure to visit the United Nations website on the topic.

Elke is Advisor Internationalisation at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.