At the eLearning Africa conference in Cairo today, the SPHEIR project management team announced the opening of a call for demonstration partnerships. The successful proposals will feature innovative partnerships delivering projects to transform the quality, relevance, accessibility and affordability of higher education (HE) in low-income countries.
Featured earlier this month at Going Global 2016, SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) is a £45 million DFID fund. Running for six years, it is managed by a consortium of organisations, led by the British Council in association with the UK HE International Unit and PwC.
At Going Global, the UK Minister of the Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, pledged the UK's support to meet the global demand for effective higher education. He stated:
"today I can commit to you our support for the SPHEIR programme, funded by the UK to catalyse ambitious, multi-sector and high-value partnerships to transform the quality, relevance, access and affordability of higher education."
The call for demonstration partnerships will fund two projects - one in Sub-Saharan Africa, and one focusing on displaced populations affected by the Syria crisis located in countries neighbouring Syria.
From the sessions and various discussions had in Cape Town at Going Global 2016 - the first time the British Council conference has been hosted in Africa - it became apparent that many UK universities and higher education organisations already have well-established partnerships with institutions in developing countries, as there are mutual institutional and research benefits.
An interesting tri-partite model is where the University of Leicester partnered with Pearson two years ago to set up a series of English language teaching and testing centres in Iraq. Professor Paul Boyle, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester explains the purpose was "to help improve access to higher education for thousands of Iraqis. Pearson brings the expertise around secure and reliable testing and we bring the intellectual expertise and experience around curricular development. The local institution provides the infrastructure."
While the most widely recognised benefit of higher education is the individual economic gain of a higher income, there are also wider societal benefits. Graduates typically pay more taxes, tend to have better health, rely less on government social programmes, and are more likely to engage in civic activities. ['The Broader Societal Benefits of Higher Education', Alisa Cunningham]
The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had aimed for universal primary education, but did not explicitly mention higher or tertiary education. However, the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - part of a wider 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and building on the MDGs - state the need for 'quality education'. The fourth SDG, which is to 'ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,' sets out the target clearly:
4.b By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.
This is a welcome acknowledgment of the role of universities in international development, which SPHEIR will help move forward. Indeed, one of the aims of the programme will be to stimulate the involvement of new actors and new modes of delivery, and achieve sustainable change in HE systems.
Focusing on innovation, SPHEIR will engage new organisations and providers, such as private sector companies, to boost the performance and enhance the relevance, affordability and quality of higher education systems.
SPHEIR will respond to key challenges faced by low-income countries, by enabling higher education systems to better meet graduate and labour market needs and to support inclusive development and economic growth.
Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK HE International Unit, voiced the IU's enthusiasm in being part of this programme:
"We are especially proud to be part of this consortium as it is a concrete step forward in the implementation of the SDGs. This DFID fund gives universities the chance to be recognised and valued for their instrumental role in supporting development around the world. This applies both economically in our own countries but also through equitable partnerships with local universities in other parts of the world."
Whether it is through research, teaching, innovation or spin out enterprises, universities have a key role to play in the development agenda. With the additional support that DFID and other government and non-government agencies provide, universities might be able to do even more to promote development in some of the poorest corners of the world.
In addition to the IU's role in managing SPHEIR, the UK HE International Unit will introduce a new Africa and Development Network to create a community of practice, within which members can learn more about opportunities and developments in UK HE engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa and in the international development space and inform IU policymaking. For more information, contact Mostafa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Alistair Fitt, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, says:
"SPHEIR is a very welcome programme [as it] aims to foster innovative international partnerships. Some international university partnerships in the past have been criticised for being one-dimensional, but SPHEIR seeks to bring together a diversity of organisations (including the private sector) to create a new and different kind of international partnership."
He continues: "SPHEIR partnerships seek to find innovative and, most importantly, mutually beneficial solutions to higher education challenges. This is probably the only sustainable way in which it is possible to achieve systemic and lasting impact."
Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath, points out the importance of equitable partnerships:
"there can be equity in the value of impact. This is clearly a good thing for universities, whether in research or education. Impact, academic or otherwise, matters. It also matters to developing countries. The value of the impact might differ somewhat from one to the other, but both parties stand to gain."
She adds: "there is also much concern about loss of brain power from developing countries. Creating a partnership where there is circulation of talented people and a commitment to assist in the region for the long term will help. The issue also calls for innovative models of delivery that add value without being disruptive."
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, goes one step further in recognising the crucial role of universities in partnerships for development:
"universities can be a very important partner on the journey [of sustainable development]. And through, for example, freedom of movement between government and higher education, universities do not only educate the next generation of highly skilled labour, but they can provide skilled leaders who can develop evidence-based policies to drive sustainable development."