Strengthening the case for UK Official Development Assistance investment in higher education

Over the past decade, the UK government has steadily increased its investment of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds in higher education. 

This includes investment in collaborative research through the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), research strengthening initiatives such as the Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office's (FCDO) higher education reform programme, Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR).

Although higher education funding has increased, the recent announcement by the UK government that ODA spending commitments will fall from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income from the next financial year mean that competition for ODA funds is set to intensify. With the creation of the new FCDO, which will be responsible for delivering the majority of ODA funds, there is a greater need for a strong evidence-based argument for UK ODA investment in higher education.

With the UK government's comprehensive spending review now delayed for a year, it is unlikely that multiyear programmes will be announced in the short term. This means that the UK higher education sector has an opportunity to build a strong case over the coming months not only for continued ODA investment in existing areas but increased, and more effective investment across higher education.


Why invest ODA in tertiary education?

As has been argued elsewhere, universities are key to achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. This link, between universities and positive development outcomes, has been further strengthened by a new report from the British Council published in October 2020, which reviewed academic research published over the past 10 years and presented a correlation between tertiary education and positive development outcomes in low and lower-middle income countries (LLMICs). However, as the report concludes, more evidence is required to strengthen this argument.  

The British Council report, 'A rigorous review of the evidence', which is authored by the Centre for Education and International Development at University College London, builds upon a 2014 report by the same authors. It covers research published between 2010 and February 2020. Four core functions of tertiary education are identified – teaching and learning, research, innovation, and engagement – and their impacts are measured against nine economic and social development outcomes. 

Although the research base has shown steady growth since the publication of the 2014 report, this updated version argues for the scope and strength of evidence to be improved. It suggests that existing evidence is heavily skewed towards certain development outcomes – in particular, economic ones.  

Though recognising the need for more research, the report draws from several studies to highlight the ways in which tertiary education has been shown to support development outcomes in LLMICs, often in areas where UK universities have been working in collaboration.  Collaborative teaching programmes aimed at strengthening the knowledge and skills base are highlighted as one positive example, alongside faculty and professional exchange, research capacity building, and transnational programmes involving North-South or North-South-South collaborations.


New analysis demonstrates how SPHEIR partnerships contribute towards development outcomes

The FCDO's flagship programme in higher education, SPHEIR, is designed to help transform the quality, relevance, access, and affordability of higher education in targeted low-income countries. In response to the British Council report, the SPHEIR Fund Manager produced a paper that looked more closely at the nine development outcomes (or themes, as framed in the report) and set out the potential link between SPHEIR project activities and specific development outcomes.

SPHEIR partnerships are shown to achieve development impact in different ways, both social and economic. Several partnerships focus on curriculum redesign including PEBL, which supports the development of new quality assured blended learning course, and TESCEA, which is improving graduate employability through a learning experience that fosters the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Projects also deliver training in pedagogical skills, and in doing so, support universities to nurture a graduate workforce that is better prepared to contribute, and more well aligned to national economic priorities.

In the case of the two SPHEIR projects that work across entire higher education systems – in Myanmar and Sierra Leone – activity is aligned with national knowledge needs and the projects are shown to have the potential to ensure that new knowledge contributes to technical and social innovation.

All eight SPHEIR projects are also shown to contribute to strengthened and reformed institutions thanks to their partnership model, and TESCEA and AQHED are highlighted for their role in building the capacity of a vibrant and engaged civil society thanks to their purposeful engagement.

While the report analysis notes the difficulties in discerning impact on development during the life of an education reform programme, it highlights the importance of scalability in the impact of educational reform. Further in-depth analysis of SPHEIR will follow in the shape of an external evaluation, and programme impact may take several years to materialise. However, what is already clear is that long-term investment in higher education reform has the potential for broad developmental impact. 


How can we strengthen the argument to funders?

As the global higher education sector emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic there will be a greater need for strengthening higher education systems and their components, such as the use of ICT and blended learning. Stronger research capabilities across all LLMICs will also be crucial, not only in creating, but demonstrating the positive impacts of higher education on development outcomes.

Evidence will be key to informing and influencing investment decisions and although many theoretical studies exist that show how higher education can impact development, there is a gap in evidence showing where it has been effective. Strong evidence will also be crucial in avoiding any potential misalignment between higher education and development outcomes, for example, a mismatch between higher education and labour market needs.

The British Council report notes that if these concerns are to be addressed, there must be greater collaboration and synergy between role players within tertiary education and with development partners such as government and the private sector.

Both the UK government and the UK higher education sector will have a critical role to play in this.


Richard Grubb is Senior Policy Officer, Sub-Saharan Africa & International Development at Universities UK International

You can learn more about UUKi's role in the SPHEIR Programme here.

You can read Universities UK International's report on the impact of ODA funding here.

At UUKi's International Higher Education Forum, online on 13 and 14 April, there will be sessions on the future of international research funding, and supporting post-pandemic higher education reform in low-income countries. You can find out more and book your place here.



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