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Higher education and the MDGs: Will they, won’t they?

On 20-22 September, the UN General Assembly gathered in New York to discuss the advancement of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). While progress has been made, many shortfalls remain and the 2015 target is as much a challenge as ever. In terms of education, the MDGs strive for universal primary education. However, since the inception of the MDG movement, more and more voices have joined the chorus advocating for a recognition of the importance of higher education in this conversation. Not only is higher education widely acknowledged as a basic right and a tool for empowerment, it is also a key driver of economic growth and development. Education is thus understood not merely a goal but also a means.

The stakes are high and the outcomes of the summit were eagerly anticipated. Ultimately, the resolution did not specifically recognise the importance of higher education; rather, the UN has indicated it will strive to give greater attention to the transition from primary education to secondary education, vocational training and non-formal education, as well as entry into the labour market. In something of a contradiction, the UN does recognise the strategic role of science and technology in development, but does not acknowledge the specific need for higher education capacity to foster such advancement.

On a more positive note, UNESCO’s newly appointed Assistant Director-General for Education has committed to an increased focus on higher education during his tenure, citing a significant demand from the UN countries. This demand was unfortunately not made apparent at the recent summit.