It is crucial to have a better understanding of how tertiary education relates to sustainable and equitable development if the UK and its education institutions are to support young people around the world achieve their full potential.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Progress has been made here over recent years, but there is still much work to do.

The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring report, which launched last month (and was discussed as part of the programme of virtual events for British Council’s online international higher education conference Going Global) focuses on inclusion at all levels of education. It highlights that students the world over are being denied access to education alongside their peers, due to discrimination in areas including gender, wealth, disability and language. 

The data shows that over 600 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum levels in reading and maths. 400 million are attending school, but not learning, or have dropped out entirely .

A disproportionate number of young people without access to, or continued inclusion in education are female. It is a UK government priority to support girls around the world to attend school and benefit from 12 years of quality education.

Is the solution to focus all efforts on basic education in the world’s poorest countries? Or is there a role for tertiary education (TE) in sustainable and equitable development, and is TE actually a requirement for strengthening basic education provision?

The British Council commissioned UCL Institute of Education to conduct a rigorous review of literature on the subject. The aim is to map what is currently known through studies in history, economics and social science with regard to the relationship of TE and development, focussing on low and lower-middle income countries (LLMICs). 

This builds on and complements the findings of the earlier rigorous review of evidence undertaken by Oketch, McCowan & Schendel in 2014. The final report for this will be available in the summer, but the research findings have already been discussed at Going Global.

The study includes a conceptual framework outlining nine development outcomes of TE. These development outcomes are deliberately broad, and often overlap, but include:

  • graduate skill and knowledge
  • enhanced professional knowledge, understanding and skill among all workers
  • economic growth
  • poverty reduction and development of sustainable livelihoods 
  • equitable and sustainable relationships
  • new knowledge that contributes to technological and social innovation
  • strengthened and transformed institutions
  • strengthened basic education provision
  • strong and engaged civil society.

Over the last decade, much has been written about the role that TE plays in contributing to these development outcomes, but this rigorous review appears to be revealing that only a small number of studies have generated robust evidence. Where evidence exists it generally points to a positive relationship between TE and development, however, such change is often constrained by a range of external factors – economic, social and political - that undermine TE’s role in development. 

The review considered over 1,400 articles, but only around 11 per cent of these met the evidence criteria. The research team found 22 studies dealing with aspects of gender, and the majority of these linked with the economic growth outcome. 

As an example, it showed that women with TE have higher earnings than women without this level of education. 

The 2014 study had already reported the evidence of how TE correlates to a higher proportion of female parliamentarians, and has a positive effect on women’s awareness of legal rights, their voice and confidence in community and family matters, and their control over future life choices and trajectory.

Although not a distinct development outcome in our latest study, there is some relevance of this work for the UK objective of getting more girls in the world’s poorest countries into schools and benefitting from quality learning. In particular, through assessing the evidence of how TE relates to:

  • the ‘enhanced professional knowledge’ within society - this development outcome covers teacher training and education, curriculum development and pedagogy
  • ‘equitable and sustainable relationships’ in society
  • ‘economic growth’ and ‘graduate skill and knowledge’ (and the relationship of TE to greater opportunities for women in leadership roles).

Although by no means a sufficient condition for ensuring access to 12 years quality education for girls across the world, I would argue this suggests that tertiary education is certainly necessary for this to happen.

It could be argued that without TE, basic education would have less capacity to include and retain growing populations of school age children. TE can provide the means for teachers (including more female teachers) to be trained, and to develop and deliver an appropriate, inclusive quality curriculum. 

Globally, there has been little progress in the percentage of primary school teachers who are trained: it has been stagnating at about 85 per cent since 2015 .

Without the skills required for planning and infrastructure development (including for power and sanitation), schools will struggle to be safe, inclusive places of learning.  

In a less equitable society, the systematic barriers which inhibit girls’ access to school education are more likely to persist. TE can relate to more equitable and sustainable relationships in society, and can also take a clear lead in this area by ensuring that TE institutions offer an inclusive and safe environment to all students and staff.

In addition, without the economic reward and career progression which TE offers to female students, girls are less likely to see female role models in leadership roles in politics, business and academia.

This is a complex challenge for which there is no single, simple solution. Some findings from the study highlight the importance of local context, and how constraints and barriers faced by TE institutions in LLMICs differ.

Furthermore, the impact of TE on development is not always positive: some evidence exists that in certain contexts, tertiary education can amplify or reinforce existing norms in a way which may inhibit development. For instance, where barriers exist to restrict access to TE for particular groups, this can entrench inequality.  

But this only serves to emphasise the need for a rigorous examination of the evidence, to gain a greater understanding of what works, where, when, and for whom, and to have sight of the gaps which need to be addressed.

Education is fundamental to equitable and sustainable development, and our survey of the perceptions of young people across 36 countries show that education plays a crucial role in building trust between nations. The UK is seen as second only to the USA as a country with world leading universities and academic research, this is a key asset for attraction and influence.

Believing that the UK contributes its fair share to international development is the strongest driver of trust in the government of the UK. The UK and our tertiary education and research institutions contribute significantly to supporting sustainable development, and our forthcoming study will provide a vital evidence base to underpin the continuation of this work.