Higher Education in the International Development Agenda


In the agenda for international development cooperation, Higher Education is seldom a priority area. Sector strategies often focus on primary education to provide a basis for improving a country’s quality of education. This article discusses the motivation for supporting Higher Education in the international development agenda. It does not advocate the need to put Higher Education in the centre of development efforts, but it does emphasise the multi-dimensional impact that properly run Higher Education institutions have on the development of a country and the need to invest in the sector. To provide examples, the article refers to Central Asian countries.

Over the last decade, the agenda for international development cooperation has been largely defined by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (United Nations 2008) and the priorities of the education sector are literacy, access to primary education and gender equality, as defined in goal 2 (primary education) and goal 3 (gender equality). Higher Education is not specifically mentioned as a goal. The consultation process for defining the post-2015 development goals is currently underway. The discussion in the education sector expands to post-secondary education, as goals might include life-long learning. Based on the 2013 World Development Report (World Bank 2012), there is also talk about a “job” goal, which could include the teaching of Higher Education.

While primary and pre-primary education provide focal areas for supporting pro-poor growth, the improvement of Higher Education provides a basis for a systemic approach and for the sustainability of a state. The expected impact can be described based on the commonly defined four major functions of Higher Education: the teaching function; the research function; service to society; and the ethical function (UNESCO 1998).

In development cooperation settings, several types of organizations are involved in supporting Higher Education: multi-lateral organizations such as the European Union; bilateral donors like the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development; and international NGOs (with the aim of increasing student mobility, for example). Lastly, university cooperation projects often work on structural reforms, funded through programs like EU Tempus or by Germany’s DAAD. UNESCO is the only UN agency with a mandate to work in developing Higher Education. Major expected long-term benefits of investment are defined in the agency’s mission statement (UNESCO 2013) and shall serve as reference here to describe effects of support for Higher Education.

 As a first benefit, Higher Education institutions enable the state to meet specific education and workforce needs. One way to ensure that this function is performed well is to ensure that curricula are in line with the demands of the labour market. The Education Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2012-2020 (Ministry of Education and Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic 2012), for example, emphasises this need: job prospects for many university graduates are currently low, while students with practical vocational training are more likely to find a job within their area of qualification. One of the intended solutions is to intensify cooperation between the private and education sectors. To support a country’s sustainable development, the teaching of Higher Education should consider providing more opportunities for young people from disadvantaged groups.

Higher Education’s research function provides a basis for evidence-based policies. This function is the only specific mention of Higher Education in the Millennium Development Agenda and in the discussion on the post-2015 development goals: local research capacity is needed to ensure high-quality and adequate monitoring of the indicators (Nuffic 2013), a need that was strengthened again at the World Science Forum 2013 (Trescher 2013).

UNESCO identifies a well-developed Higher Education sector as a key factor for promoting “human rights, sustainable development, democracy, peace and justice” (UNESCO 2013). Independent local Higher Education institutions provide a space for thinking about the sustainable development of society. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the EU Tempus office criticises the small proportion of activities and investment in university science (Tempus Programme 2010). Universities do not assert their position towards the political sphere. International academic cooperation (with European universities, for example) is one way to support improvement.

Based on the outlined factors, quality Higher Education is very important for a country’s sustainable development and international competitiveness. A well-functioning university sector does not improve equal opportunities only on a national level, as graduates are better qualified for both the domestic and international job markets. This motivates local entrepreneurship and attracts foreign investment. Similarly, quality local research is the basis for clear decision-making: academia should be supported to assert a more independent position within the work division of international post-colonial research. Only if Higher Education locally asserts and improves how it performs all its functions will it be able to support the long-term sustainable development of a country fully and efficiently.


Ministry of Education and Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic. 2012. Education Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2012-2020. Available from: http://edu.gov.kg/images/EDS%202012-2020_Final_eng.docx [10 March 2013]

Nuffic. 2013. Where is higher education in the post-2015 development agenda? Available from: http://www.nuffic.nl/en/news/blogs/where-is-higher-education-in-the-post-2015-development-agenda [10 March 2013]

Tempus Programme. 2010. Higher Education in the Kyrgyz Republic. Available from:  http://www.tempus.kg/kg_review_he.pdf [10 March 2013]

Trescher, D., 2013. Co-created knowledge to strengthen sustainable societies. EuroScientist. Available from: http://euroscientist.com/2013/12/co-created-knowledge-to-strengthen-sustainable-societies/ [10 March  2013]

UNESCO. 1998. World Conference on Higher Education. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/education/educprog/wche/diaz-e.htm [10 March 2013]

UNESCO. 2013. Higher Education: Mission and Strategy. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/higher-education/mission/ [10 March 2013]

United Nations. 2008. Official List of Millennium Development Goal Indicators. Available from:            http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Attach/Indicators/OfficialList2008.pdf [10 March 2013]

World Bank. 2012. World Development Report 2013: Jobs. Washington, DC: World Bank. Available from: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTNWDR2013/Resources/8258024-1320950747192/8260293-1322665883147/WDR_2013_Report.pdf [10 March 2013]

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