International higher education partnerships are driving progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals –the UK can play a vital role in this.

new study has found that international higher education partnerships are highly effective in supporting progress against all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The results of the study (commissioned by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and the British Council) reinforce the view that universities should be recognised as essential actors in the international development space and supported by donors to deliver projects that drive progress towards the global goals. 

The study was launched on 12 January at a virtual event which heard from leaders, practitioners, funders and policy implementers involved in international partnerships in higher education.

Nikki Stoddart, head of scholarships, tertiary education and partnerships at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said:

We believe investment in education partnerships can really benefit a sustainable future for all and help to build stronger economies and societies and raise living standards.

It is also in the UK’s own national interests because it creates incredibly strong international partnerships which we can then take with us across all the work we do in the FCDO.

The report affirms this, showing that international higher education projects offer added value compared to other forms of international aid provision. It makes a compelling argument that funders should focus more on partnerships between institutions in different countries.

While we recognise that partnerships perform best against Goal 4: Quality Education, and Goal 17: Partnership for the Goals, it is vital now that international higher education partnerships are recognised for their ability to contribute towards all 17 of the goals. 

How do higher education partnerships support SDG targets? 

There is a growing understanding of the developmental impact of higher education, but this has not always been reflected in donor strategies. This picture has started to change, thanks in part to the success of projects like those mapped in this study, and initiatives such as the THE Impact Rankings, which have played an important role in increasing recognition of universities’ contribution towards all SDG targets. 

The role of higher education in development is multifaceted, and delivered through three main avenues:

  • Research generates the knowledge and innovation needed to address the most complex and intractable issues of our time. 
  • Teaching and learning shapes generations of graduates and leaders who will go on to tackle these challenges in their professional lives. 
  • Community engagement enables local partnerships and the co-production of critical knowledge. 

International partnerships in higher education are shown to support all three elements to thrive. As contributors to the knowledge base, partnerships improve our understanding of global challenges and develop practicable solutions. As implementers of new knowledge, partnerships not only conduct research in order to enrich the knowledge base, but also implement their results in practice.

Why should donors fund HE partnerships?

The added value that these partnerships offer compared to other forms of international aid provision is noteworthy and supports the position that increased donor resource should be channelled through university partnerships.

In a period where there may be increased competition for financial resource, there would be some sense in leveraging the strong international reputation of, and trust in the UK’s higher education assets to drive forward an international development agenda.

One SDG cannot be achieved in isolation and international higher education partnerships are better equipped than single organisations to address societal issues. Project partners can include universities, NGOs, private organisations, and governments and their agencies. 

Through these diverse partnerships with representatives from various disciplines and various sectors, projects facilitate collaboration between different types of organisations and address wider societal challenges more efficiently.  Partnerships mobilise resources and complement each other’s expertise and experience. Moreover, partnerships reduce financial and project management risks and increase prospects of future funding.

How can universities be supported to develop impactful partnerships?

The ACU and the British Council have been supporting universities across the Commonwealth and beyond to develop partnerships that contribute meaningfully to the SDGs, whether directly or indirectly. The ACU’s Higher Education and the SDGs Network and its Challenge Grants, and the British Council’s Going Global Partnerships, support the development of the types of partnerships featured in the study that have delivered impact.  

Aid funding for higher education projects still lags behind other areas, although, thanks in part to the growing evidence base, the policy picture is starting to change. In the UK, the FCDO has demonstrated its confidence in the important role of higher education in development through its funding of Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR).

However, increased funding alone will not be sufficient. 

Trust is also a vital component of effective, mutually beneficial, and sustainable partnerships – and is a commodity that need not be diminished by a global pandemic, and can even be strengthened through international partnerships. 

This study highlights that the main drivers for partners in contributing to the SDGs include mutual trust, shared vision, and long-term commitment to working collaboratively – all values which are shared by the UK higher education sector, the British Council and the ACU.

To support higher education partnerships most effectively, this report highlights the benefits of: 

  • designing programmes to embed the SDGs
  • supporting partnerships in monitoring and evaluating their progress towards the SDGs
  • emphasising the crucial role of Southern partners in setting the agenda and governance models for North-South partnerships.

As we start to address the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to embed the principles of equitable partnerships into higher education projects and the funding mechanisms that support them. 

The international higher education community has a crucial role in addressing global challenges.  With its higher education sector, the UK has an opportunity to be at the heart of partnerships committed to achieving the SDGs, and in doing so to strengthen international trust in the UK.