What will 2015 Mean for Higher Education?

When the current Education for All (EFA) goals expire in 2015, the pendulum of global funding for education may swing in the direction of higher education. The EFA movement—supported for over a decade by more than 160 countries and coordinated by UNESCO—has a lofty goal to “provide quality basic education for all children, youths and adults by 2015.” EFA is aligned with the educational components of the Millennium Development Goals, which include universal primary education and gender parity and empowerment of women. Higher education has not been a target of these development goals.

As the world prepares to take stock of 15 years of investment to reach universal primary education and global poverty reduction, the international community is also beginning to discuss which set of challenges will need to be addressed over the next 15 years. Given the finite resources for education, debates on educational investment reflect a profoundly difficult choice for governments and international organizations: prioritizing funding to reach universal primary education or increasing access to secondary and tertiary education? The EFA framework for 2000-2015 was committed to universal primary education—but how likely is it that the next set of EFA goals will support secondary and tertiary education?

Quite likely it seems—if developing countries have a say. The goal of attaining universal primary education benefited many countries in the global South, with global enrollments in primary schools rising over the last decade. But this decade is shaping up as a decade of higher education, with emerging economies increasingly investing in higher education and skilled training. A notable example is Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program, which was launched in 2011 with the goal of sending 100,000 Brazilian college students to study in science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields around the world (and return home as experts to contribute as scholars and practitioners to Brazil’s booming economy). Brazil continues to support basic education initiatives, but this $2 billion national investment in international higher education signals a shift in educational investment priorities.

Many countries and international coalition groups in the developing world are advocating for UNESCO to focus on setting development goals that explicitly include higher education. Earlier this year, leaders of the African Union endorsed Rachad Farah of Djibouti as the African candidate for the highest post at UNESCO. Mr. Farah also has the backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In his words, “it is time for the South to take the driving seat and say: ‘[UNESCO] is also our organization’.” His vision for a UNESCO of the future includes a focus on higher education and cooperation, “to enable the South to upgrade its universities and cooperate in research within Africa and with other countries, such as those in Asia.” The current Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has also expressed a need for more development work in support of secondary and tertiary education. As of now, UNESCO has not articulated higher education goals for the EFA framework after 2015, but it is likely that higher education will be at the forefront of shaping the future work of UNESCO and the global development agenda for the next 15 years.

This shift is evident in the work of NGOs and nonprofits, too. At IIE, we are paying close attention to the nexus between international development and higher education. Most recently, IIE has committed to working on the development of higher education in Myanmar and to supporting students and scholars at risk in Syria. Another emerging area for us is women and their role in the global economy, and on establishing better pathways between secondary and higher education and increasing access to college education for girls.

On May 6, IIE announced recommendations for the inclusion of quality higher education in the next Millennium Development Goals.