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Higher Education Included in Sustainable Development Goals

guyThe Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank are attracting thousands to Washington, DC, this year, an unusually large number. This year is particularly important for international development because it ushers in the United Nations’ new “Sustainable Development Goals (2016-2030)” as the “Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015)” come to an end.

The draft SDGs may be good news for developing world universities, including business schools. Higher education was not mentioned in any of the MDGs eight goals, but only primary education. That should not necessarily have prevented development agencies, such as the World Bank and regional development banks, from focusing on tertiary education, but in fact, universities were neglected these last 15 years. Don’t ask me what was in the minds of the MDGs’ drafters when they excluded secondary and higher education! Perhaps they believed that primary schools could grow happily without teacher training colleges?

I remember Larry Summers speaking about the MDGs when they were launched. He saw their great advantage in focusing attention and attracting funding. He also warned, wisely, of the risk that development bureaucracies would regard the list of eight goals as limitative, to the detriment of other key drivers of prosperity. This is exactly what happened. Indeed at one point all expenditure proposals at the World Bank had to be linked to achievement of the MDGs (including, ludicrously, budget requests for office computers and such).

The number of goals has more than doubled from MDGs to SDGs and the breadth of most goals is far wider. Primary education is no longer singled out in SDG # 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.” In short, the “development community” (government aid agencies, international financial institutions, foundations and other non-government organizations) no longer faces political/bureaucratic obstacles to focus on expanding and improving the developing world’s universities.

Official development institutions were quick to pick up the new clues. The World Bank’s web site features a tertiary education page which asks “why is tertiary education important?” and states that the World Bank gives priority to “improving the quality and relevance of tertiary education”. The African Development Bank issued a flagship report entitled: “Strategy for Higher Education, Science and Technology.” The Asian Development Bank has recently issued a spate of interesting research about higher education, which will be presented at GBSN’s Tenth Annual Conference in Manila, November 4-6. One of their key findings is that the “quality (and relevance) of education and training appears to be much more of a binding constraint than the quantity of students.” They note that the “coexistence of significant demand for professionals, relatively high tertiary unemployment rates, and fairly long times to fill professional positions suggests skill mismatches between the labor market and the tertiary education system.” This will sound familiar to you, but until recently did not figure prominently on the radar screen of major players in the development community.

For leadership, management and entrepreneurship educators of the developing world, this is good news.

Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder & CEO of the Global Business School Network