Secondary and Higher Education in the Post 2015 Framework

Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda  Compare 43:6 December 2013
Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda
Compare 43:6 December 2013

Elaine Unterhalter

Professor of Education and International Development
Institute of Education, University of London

Rosie Peppin Vaughan

Lecturer in Education and International Development
Institute of Education, University of London

Amy Smail

Research Officer
Institute of Education, University of London


This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in Compare [the exclusive right to publish residing with Taylor & Francis, copyright BAICE]. The final version can be found here.

Secondary and higher education have an elusive presence in discussions of the MDGs and the post 2015 Framework.  The MDG education target focussed on universal primary education. The gender goal had targets for gender parity in primary, secondary and tertiary education, but expressed no aim to expand these sectors.  The illustrative goals and national targets set out in the High Level Panel (HLP) report on the Post 2015 Development Framework (Yudhoyono, Sirleaf and Cameron 2013) outlines a goal of ‘quality education and lifelong learning’, but the associated targets are for lower secondary education, and young people’s skills for work, mentioning only technical and vocational education (Yudhoyono, Sirleaf and Cameron, 2013, 30). The expanded discussion of education in the HLP report makes only passing reference to higher levels of education and the importance of teachers’ knowledge and expertise, without considering how these processes are to be provided for (Yudhoyono, Sirleaf and Cameron, 2013, 37). Why are secondary and higher education treated so superficially in these reports and what are some of the consequences of their omission?

In 2013 we were commissioned by the British Council to undertake research into approaches to secondary and higher education in post 2015 discussions (Unterhalter, Vaughan and Smail, 2013). Our study, based on an assessment of literature and a small number of expert interviews, concluded that the limited focus on these levels could be attributed to a number of processes associated with the MDGs.

Firstly, the compelling need from 2000, as articulated in the MDGs and EFA, to ensure access to a full cycle of primary school dominated the policy agenda; and this unfinished business, particularly for the poorest and most discriminated against, overshadows the post 2015 discussions.  Notably, it crowded out access to higher levels of education. Indeed, as it is often elites who access senior secondary and higher education, the notion that one could simultaneously argue for EfA, taking account of inequalities and marginalization and for expanded higher education, which might not always take account of these exclusions, was not considered by many of the advocacy coalitions. However, the education planning, management and professional support to overcome deeply ingrained inequalities requires critically reflexive, in –depth education provided in a number of universities ( Boni and Walker, 2013). It is important to think of the provision of education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels as a continuum, highly connected with each other. This has been recognised by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Unesco and the World Bank (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2012:36), but generally this theme has been underplayed in discussions of post 2015.

Second, a number of powerful advocacy coalitions stress that EfA can no longer be understood in terms of access to basic education, but must focus on quality of learning and teaching (United ntions,2012; Global Campaign for Education, 2013;  Centre for Universal Education, 2011). Much of the debate is about defining quality (Center for Universal education.UIS, 2013); yet very little of the quality debate has focussed on teacher education despite research on its significance (eg.Moon and Wolfenden, 2012).

Third, while youth and skills are increasingly highlighted as key to economic growth and development(e.g. UNESCO, 2013 and Yudhoyono, Sirleaf and Cameron 2013 ), the particular education needs of this group  are often discussed in imprecise ways, such as  citizenship (United Nations, 2012) , primary-level skills, or a broader understanding taking in a range of different sites of learning (UNESCO, 2013).  However, the particular links to secondary and post secondary education are often not reviewed in these discussions.

Fourth, patterns of development assistance may set up their own dynamics regarding what is considered important. Since 2000 the largest proportion of aid goes to primary education, and this proportion has grown absolutely and proportionately from 2002 to 2010, overtaking the amount allocated to post-secondary education in the last 5 years. It is a matter of debate as to whether  these trends represent a disproportionate ‘skewing’ of aid, but several authors are concerned that the MDGs and EFA goals are being widely interpreted as a signal to prioritise primary education over all other levels (Benavot et al, 2010). While aid to post secondary education remains the next largest sector, a large component of this aid goes to university scholarships in the donor country, and only a very small proportion towards the higher education in low and middle income countries (Bergmann, 2009; Koehn, 2013). There is no concerted agenda to link higher education with sustainability and equity; as projects of single institutions or individuals, they lack critical mass and the capacity to influence the debates on the post 2015 Framework.

Fifth, the literature on secondary and tertiary education in relation to addressing poverty and inequality is complex and there is little work that shows a causal link between the expansion of higher education and attention to social justice (Lebeau and Sall,, 2011; Naidoo, 2011; Hawkes and Megu, 2011).  However, there is a need for synergy in thinking; none of the goals being proposed in relation to health, social protection, safe water or ICT could be delivered without considerable professional, scientific and technological knowledge and training (Waage et al, 2010; Unterhalter and Dorward, 2013).  However, the perception that it is elites who participate in higher education may have limited research attention to  how this sector contributes to  inclusion, access to education and other areas of political, social and economic development.

While at present there is not a robust evidence base linking higher education and poverty elimination and equality, it is clear that a number of the HLP’s principles for a post 2015 framework require higher education. The technological expansion to support integrated sustainable development requires not just the expertise of particular knowledge hubs like Silicon Valley, but in-depth acquaintance with the conditions of different countries.  ‘Big data’, which the HLP advocates as crucial for generating appropriate indicators and monitoring systems, will not be devised, collected, analyzed or critiqued in ways that are responsive to local conditions without a concomitant expansion of a class of knowledge brokers and knowledge users. These processes require higher education.

Our review examined how the main organisations involved in the post MDG discussion addressed secondary and higher education (Unterhalter, Vaughan, and Smail, 2013, 33-44). Unesco and the World Bank, the most prominent agencies working on education and development, have related but distinct positions; Unesco tends to provide an arena for critical thinking linked with rights, building networks of higher education institutions. The World Bank tends to focus on the implications for economic growth, entrepreneurship, and system strengthening in higher education. However neither organisation has significantly prioritised higher education, despite publishing a number of  works on higher education and poverty in the last decade ( UNESCO, 2004; World Bank, 2011;). Some other development organisations, government departments, donors, and higher education institutions, have stressed the importance of higher education for the EfA agenda, but none, with the exception of the Asian Development Bank (2012), have actively been advocating within the post-MDG discussions. The small amount of literature on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) does not yet mention education, and none of the large civil society coalitions are arguing for secondary or higher education.

We are not convinced that a target or an indicator on secondary and higher education is an appropriate direction to take with regard to the post 2015 agenda, partly because of concerns with some of the perverse consequences associated with the indicators selected heretofore (Fukuda Parr and Yamin, 2013). But we do think discussion of the important role to be played by secondary and higher education in addressing global issues of poverty, sustainability and equality, should figure more prominently in the post 2015 education agenda than it currently does. Without some explicit attention, the elusiveness, which is enmeshed with many unexamined inequalities will persist, and this does not augur well for the post 2015 world we want.


Asian Development Bank. (2013) ADB Economic Working Paper Series: A ZEN Approach to Post 2015: Addressing the range of Perspectives across Asia and the Pacific, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

Benavot, A., Archer, D., Moseley, S., Mundy, K., Phiri, F., Steer, L., and Wiking, D., (2010) ‘International Aid to Education’, Comparative Education Review , Vol. 54, No. 1 (February), pp. 105-124.

Bergmann, H. (2009) Review of Prospects for Scaling up Germany’s Aid to Education: Background paper prepared for the Education for all Global Monitoring Report 2010: Reaching the Marginalised, Paris: UNESCO.

Boni, A., and Walker, M. (2013) Human Development and Capabilities: Re-imaging the university in the 21st century, Abingdon: Routledge

Center for Universal Education at Brookings. (2011) A Global Compact on Learning: Taking on Education in Developing Countries, Washington DC: Brookings

Center for Universal Education at Brookings and Unesco Institute for Statistics. (2013) Toward Universal Learning: What Every Child Should Learn: Report No 1 of 3: Learning Metrics Task Force February 2013, Brookings Institution: UIS and CUE

Commonwealth Secretariat. (2012) Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group on the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education: Commonwealth Recommendations for the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education Background Paper, London: Commonwealth Secretariat

Fukuda Parr, S. And Yamin, A., 2013,

Global Campaign for Education. (2013) Realising the Right to Education for All: Global Campaign for Education discussion paper on Education Post 2015: March 2013, Global Campaign For Education

Hawkes, D., and Megur, S., (2012) Evidence on the relationship between education, skills and economic growth in low-income countries: Systematic Review, London: EPPI.

Koehn, P. (2013) ‘Donor-Supported Transnational Higher Education Initiatives for Development and Research: A Framework for Analysis and a Call for Increased Transparency,’ Higher Education Policy, 12 March 2013

Lebeau, Y., and Sall,E. (2011) ‘Global institutions, higher education and development’, in R. King, S. Marginson and R. Naidoo (eds) Handbook on Globalization and Higher Education (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar), 129-147.

Moon, R.and Wolfenden, F. 2012, Teacher education in Sub-Saharan Afirca Oxford: Symposium Books

Naidoo, R., 2011, ‘Rethinking development: higher education and the new imperialism’ in R. King, S. Marginson and R. Naidoo eds. Handbook on Globalization and Higher education, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 40-58.

UNESCO. (2004) Final Report of the Meeting of Higher Education Partners (World Conference on Higher Education +5), UNESCO Paris 23-25 June 2003, Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO. (2012) EFA Global Monitoring Report: Youth and Skills, Paris: UNESCO.

United Nations. (2012) Education First: An Initiative of the United Nations Secretary General , New York: United Nations

Unterhalter, E. and Dorward, A., (forthcoming, 2013) ‘New MDGs, development concepts, principles, and challenges in a post 2015 world,’ Social Indicators.

Unterhalter, E., Vaughan, R.  and Smail, A. 2013 forthcoming,  Secondary, Post Secondary and Higher Education in the Post-2015 discussions. London: British Council.

Waage, J.,  Banerji, J., Campbell, O.,  et al ‘The Millennium Development Goals: a cross sectoral analysis and principles for goal setting post 2015’ The Lancet, Vol. 376, Issue 9745, Sept. 2010, pp. 991-1023.

World Bank (2011) Learning For All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development: World Bank Group Education Strategy 2020, Washington DC: World Bank.

Yudhoyono, S. B.,  Sirleaf, E.J. and Cameron, D., 2013, A new global partnership. Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post 2015 Development Agenda.New York: United Nations Publications