SDG 4: Europe’s efforts towards equitable education

SDG 4: Europe’s efforts towards equitable education

Through Eurocentric lenses, one might get the impression that the UN’s 2030 Agenda targets only the Global South. However, this agenda universally targets the Global North as well, shifting the paradigm from donor to equal partner. This blog, as part of our Winter Forum Week series, depicts Europe’s current participation in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in relation to higher education, as well as ways in which it can improve.

A paradigm shift?

The Education 2030, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sets rather ambitious targets for the education sector. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 ‘Quality Education’ aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Among other targets, by 2030 the UN Member States should ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education. Provision of tertiary education is deemed vital for lifelong learning vision and should be made progressively free. Mobility in tertiary education is seen as an asset and opportunity that should be enhanced to develop students’ competencies and global competitiveness.
Interestingly enough, SDG 4 targets are quite compatible with the EHEA reforms and EU policies (Europe 2020, New Skills Agenda for Europe, European Higher Education in the World). For instance, ensuring equal and inclusive access to education, providing learners with relevant skills for employment, focus on learning outcomes and lifelong learning, development of transferable skills and learning for global citizenship. It is no wonder that the EU has committed to implement the SDGs both in its internal and external policies. To keep track of the progress made, the European Commission has recently established the Multi-stakeholder platform on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in the EU.

The funding mechanisms

When it comes to success of inter-governmental initiatives, the availability of funding mechanisms is crucial. Yet the 2030 Agenda does not encompass specific funding, rather relying on UN Members States efforts. The Education 2030 Framework of Action calls for an increase of public funding for education along with more equitable and efficient financial allocation, expanding globally the number of scholarships and reversal of decline in aid to education. Considering the 2.5% decrease of investment in education and training in the EU from 2010-2014, it is difficult to expect significant changes in this area.
One could agree that achievement of the SDGs within the EU Members states is relatively well funded via European Cohesion policy. On the other hand, the EU is collectively committed to providing 0.7% of GNI as Official Development Assistance within the timeframe of the 2030 Agenda. In addition, the two EU flagship programmes, Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, provide funding opportunities for internationalisation of higher education, innovation and research almost worldwide.
For example, the actions Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees and International Credit Mobility provide financial support for partner countries’ students and staff while the action Capacity Building in the field of Higher Education supports the modernisation, accessibility and internationalisation of higher education in partner countries. Cooperation between youth organisations from different world regions is supported by the Erasmus+ action Capacity Building in the field of youth.
The EU Aid Volunteers programme provides support to humanitarian aid projects and contributes to strengthening the local capacity of disaster-affected communities. Another EU initiative, Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme, supports higher education cooperation between countries in Africa, promoting sustainable development and contributing to poverty reduction. These Initiatives are part of larger EU External Actions funding external cooperation and aid which should contribute to all 17 SDGs.

How can HEIs contribute to SDGs?

Internationalisation of higher education immediately comes to mind as a catalyst for sustainable development and development of global citizenship. The question that arises is how can higher education institutions contribute to SDG achievement, contrary to the ivory tower stereotype? HEIs worldwide have an opportunity to contribute to implementation of SDGs by sharing knowledge and  technology (eg via open educational resources), building capacitities for sustainable development, building global partnership, and influencing the decision makers by empirical evidence.
The development cooperation has been one of the most prominent activities in internationalisation of higher education, previously supported by Alfa, Erasmus Mundus, Edu-link and Tempus programmes. As knowledge hubs, HEIs can develop innovative solutions for cost effective implementation of SDGs. There is already a tradition of forming worldwide partnerships between HEIs, Research Institutions and businesses. Teacher training is another possible area for HEI involvement. Namely, one of the SDG 4 targets envisages the increase of supply of qualified teachers. HEIs are encouraged to internationalise their curricula with courses on global citizenship, sustainable development and global aspects of their academic field and promotion of volunteering. There are many examples of student exchange or internships schemes between developed and underdeveloped countries that contribute to skill development both ways.
It is safe to conclude that achievement of the SDGs will not be an easy task. However, there are already a number of existing means and practices available that should be utilised. It would be prudent to take stock of similar regional and global policies regarding SDGs, existing funding mechanisms and good examples in order to coordinate effective implementation. HEIs looking to further pursue internationalisation could benefit from involvement with SDG support and they should address such involvement in their strategic documents. Potential benefits from SDGs support for HEIs might include raising international visibility and international profile, networking, development of transferable skills, diversifying student body, curricula improvement and more. The SDGs are nothing new, but that doesn’t mean we should stop coming up with innovative ways in which they can be reached.
Jasmina Skočilić is Expert Advisor at Agency for Mobility and EU Programmes.
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