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November 2015

Revealing Deficits in SDGs: The Quest for Bolstering the Alternatives

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at and

I have been writing commentaries on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their anticipated relevance to higher education. At The 6th Annual Donors Harmonization Group (DHG) meeting in Brussels last month, I had a good fortune of engaging in a public dialogue on this issue further. At this well-attended event, that included colleagues from the European Union and IIEP-UNESCO in the dialogue, I maintained that the SDGs, which got endorsed in September 2015 (at the UN in New York), largely left higher education marginalized, as in the era of the MDGs.

It was hoped that SDGs will situate higher education at its rightful position to realise social, economic and technological advancement, poverty reduction and wealth creation, and sustainable global development. Yet SDGs, like MDGs, now present a tenuous stance against the firmly established positions of numerous leading development players which already described higher education as key, critical, core, and central. In this editorial, I am calling for other existing and ratified alternative agendas that are more favourable to the sector to be elevated—and vigorously consolidated.

The Evidence

In analysing the 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs (rendered in the headings and sub-headings of the document), through some key words and phrases, I found “development” and “developing countries” mentioned 50 times each—as expected, a very large representation. “Higher” and “tertiary” education and “University” appeared just once each, and university, in fact rather tangentially.

If it is any consolation, “research” and “innovation” collectively appeared 15 times. Research, which appears eight times, speaks to clean energy, agriculture, and marine technology.  Furthermore, enhancing scientific research and increasing scientific knowledge are also mentioned. These however are widely scattered across the targets—none in the section in education.

The Delivery

One of the 17 goals where higher education is barely mentioned is Goal 4 which states: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” which lays out a total of 10 targets. I will only draw sections that mention higher education, which are 4.3 and 4.b. Article 4.3 stated “By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”. This is the only time tertiary education and university appear in the major entries of the SDGs.

Article 4.b read “By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries… for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes”.

As noted under 4.3, the document speaks only about equal access, not about expanding access or strengthening the sector; and the word “university” there dropped, it appears, casually. Under 4.b, the document only speaks about raising enrolments through scholarships. In sum, the document only speaks about equity and scholarship as regards higher education.

The feeble position of higher education in the SDGs stands out flimsily packaged in equity and scholarship opportunities. As I wrote in an earlier piece, the lack of active and seasoned lobbyists for higher education is starkly evident in its virtual absence from the SDGs.

The Facts

In a multi-country and multi-institution study on flagship universities which I am coordinating, I estimated student enrolment in African HE system to 15 million. Contrasted against this “massifying” system, it is not that hard to imagine the infinitesimal contributions of scholarship opportunities as proclaimed in the SDGs.

Furthermore, research appeared eight times, but scattered around the goals without clearly situating it in higher education. Yet research cannot be divorced from higher education institutions in the African context.  Probably except a few countries such as South Africa (and a number of French speaking African countries), the major hubs for any meaningful research in African institutions remain universities—to be sure a few flagship universities. Even for the major (flagship) universities, their research productivity remains far from satisfactory due to a myriad of reasons. Therefore research articulated outside higher education, as rendered in SDGs, are far from meaningful to the immediate need of the continent.

Alternative—and Preferred—Agendas

Countries have their own long-term national strategic development plans which project decades ahead. If one contrasts these national strategic plans against the SDGs, considerable disparities become obvious. For instance, the Growth and Employment Strategy Paper (2010-20) of Cameroon, which aspires to become an emerging nation in 2035, places high expectations on higher education to play a vital role in its growth and development agenda.  Zambia’s Vision 2030 envisages a “nation in which science, technology and innovations [in academic institutions] are the driving forces in national development and competes globally by 2030”.

Moreover, SDGs also display a visible incoherence (in higher education) with regional agendas, such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063. The Agenda on higher education stipulates “Build and expand an African knowledge society through transformation and investments in universities, science, technology, research and innovation.”

The just released, but yet to be ratified, Continental Education Strategy Agenda 2016-25 of the African Union identifies higher education as one of its 12 strategic objectives. In a standalone section, Strategic Objective Nine, it states “Revitalize and expand tertiary education, research and innovation to address continental challenges and promote global competitiveness”.

It is thus clear that “equity and scholarships” in SDGs stand way too short to Africa’s position to “build, expand, revitalize, and invest in” in higher education.

Development Partners: SDGs vs the Alternatives

On average more than 70 per cent of research funds for African institutions, predominantly flagship universities, are generated externally. This massive dependency however has often been reiterated as one of the most adverse factors to the development of research and innovation in the region.

Development partners are now at liberty in terms of the policy alternatives at their disposal: one more favourable to higher education than the other. It is common sense that they would pick the favourable supportive one which is in concert with the contemporary discourse endorsed by multiple players globally. Regardless, nations should continue to pursue their higher education strategies unconstrained by the feeble rendering in the SDGs.


The central role of higher education—in advancing knowledge, skills and innovative capacities as well as overcome the myriad regional and global challenges of the environment, climate, health, food security, and energy, among many others—has never been more important, more urgent, and more critical. The SDGs were expected to affirm higher education—explicitly and robustly—in confronting these issues and challenges. But, it was observed in the Brussels dialogue that SDGs “poorly framed” higher education.

National and regional bodies have already pronounced clearly the critical role of higher education. Similarly, development agencies and other global and regional players have also already affirmed—and embraced—it. It is thus imperative that all players—internal as well external—pursue their higher education strategies unencumbered by the tenuous position of the SDGs.

Finally, higher education in Africa, and most other developing countries, has grown massively during the era of MDGs—which barely mentioned it. It is highly likely that the sector will continue to thrive even more, regardless of the SDGs—which I maintain fell disappointingly way too short in advancing higher education.



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