Treacherous Ambivalence

The 2015-Millenium Development Goals (MDBs) need to explicitly speak to the expansion and revitalization of higher education in the advancement of socio-economic development.


May 19, 2014

“Going Global 2014” Conference took place in Miami with over 1,000 participants from 70 countries that included ministers, senior government officials, policy makers, institutional leaders, academics, and researchers.

In a discussion entitled ‘’Post-2015 Development Framework: The Role of Tertiary Education,” it was stated that the post-2015 MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), may not speak to the development of higher education sector directly. Many have been lamenting on this oversight for over a decade due to its impact on higher development in concerned countries. Even more will be disoriented by the prospect of yet another decade of higher education marginalization in the MDGs.

One of the arguments for the probable exclusion of higher education from the 2015-MDGs was a lack of sufficient and direct evidence to link higher education to socio-economic development. Many in the audience were awed, to say the least, by this ominous, entrenched and hollow argument.

A mountain of evidence

Unesco notes that “At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education.” The World Bank stresses that the skills of the knowledge economy are built at the tertiary education level and improving tertiary education systems should be high on Africa’s development agenda. It speaks to this effect in a number of visible studies which include Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise (2000), Constructing Knowledge Societies (2002), and Accelerating Catch-Up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa (2008), among others.

The African Development Bank supports the development of engineering, research, and science and technology with universities and regional vocational training institutions at the center. The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) urges Africa to invest “adequate resources [in universities to play their] rightful role in the global production of scientific, technological and industrial knowledge”. The African Union Commission underscores “the recognized link between high-level human resources, knowledge production and sustainable development”.

In an article due to be published on the International Journal of African Higher Education, David Bloom and his Harvard University colleagues once again stress the importance of higher education to development. Their article challenges beliefs that tertiary education has little role in promoting economic growth and alleviating poverty and presents evidence about the impact that tertiary education can have on economic growth and poverty reduction, with a focus on the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Needless to say, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, managers, economists, academics, to mention some, are critical to meeting the development goals of nations. There is no debate that these knowledge workers are critical to meeting the MDGs nor is there ambiguity about higher education institutions as the ultimate citadel for training, developing and harvesting these skills. One then questions the virtue of such a conversation in this era of the knowledge economy where higher education stands out as main contributor, player and driver. It is simply baffling why such a flimsy position still thrives and continues to impact the development of the sector.

Africa’s political position

In anticipation of the MDGs, the African Union has taken an official response called “Common African Position on the Post-2015 Millennium Development Agenda” which stated:

We must achieve excellence in human resources capacity development through an improvement in the quality of education and training by: investing in learning infrastructures; increasing the use of ICT; ensuring higher completion rates; promoting pre-schooling, integrated adult education and tertiary education; and improving the quality and conditions of service of educators and trainers.

It went on:

Enhancing equity will require: improving and sustaining progress on gender parity at all levels of education, with special emphasis on secondary and tertiary education; creating a positive environment for girls and boys at school; increasing the representation of female teachers, especially in science and technology; and eliminating human trafficking and child labour, thus allowing children to benefit from educational facilities for their full development.

The lack of a strong statement that speaks directly and unequivocally to higher education, only mentioned twice as “tertiary education”, is an obvious oversight. It is doubtful that this position ties higher education to the MDGs, let alone advances the competitive edge of Africa in the global knowledge economy. The disconnect is palpable between this watered-down position and the numerous endeavours of the African Union—such as establishing the Pan-African University,  promoting higher education quality, fostering harmonization and mobility—to build a “prosperous continent.”

Alternative discourse

The 2015-MDGs need to speak explicitly to the expansion and revitalization of higher education in the advancement of socio-economic development. Not doing so may have a chilling effect on the sector by depriving the sector of needed external sources and limiting the deployment and channeling of local resources. It is imperative that the MDGs embrace higher education directly and wholeheartedly. In a case where the new post-2015 millennium development regimes become a reality in their current form, nations, concerned institutions, and higher education leaders and associations need to push for alternative schemes—and stronger positions.


As the next phase of the MDGs is formulated, it is paramount that unwavering support to higher education must be rightfully positioned as one of the “designated priorities”. With the existing evidence connecting higher education to socio-economic development, the argument for further evidence about whether higher education contributes to development and poverty reduction is simply a meaningless distraction. To sum up, no amount of unfounded ambivalence should be allowed to conceal that higher education, without any doubt, immeasurably contributes to social, cultural and economic progress.

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Damtew Teferra

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