By Mostafa Al-Mossallami, Senior Responsible Owner for SPHEIR, FCDO

26 June 2019 - 10:21

Student working on laptop

Earlier this year a new university league table was launched which aims to measure and rank institutions’ success in delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year also marks the midpoint of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) higher education innovation and reform programme, SPHEIR, and is therefore a good opportunity to reflect on the role of higher education (HE) partnerships in development.  

The first edition of the league table ranks universities according to metrics based on 11 SDGs and a ranking of universities that are “best achieving”(1)  these Goals. While it is still in its early stages, it is an intriguing step which indicates a growing desire for universities to be seen as part of achieving solutions to development challenges, including these global targets.

Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) – a different kind of partnership

In 2016, FCDO’s Higher Education Taskforce identified isolated examples of HE partnerships supported by other donors, which had been successful. The World Bank noted the era of individualism among tertiary institutions was coming to an end as governments and stakeholders were increasingly asking them to become “team players” and “see themselves as networked partners and institutional collaborators.” (2)

FCDO took the decision that the SPHEIR programme would take this partnership approach and apply it consistently and at scale. This approach incentivised HE institutions to work collaboratively in diverse and multifaceted partnerships. It also attracted new types of actors, including private sector partners, to work collaboratively across different countries and sectors to deliver new and creative solutions to major issues facing HE systems in developing countries.  

An example is the private sector-led SPHEIR project Lending for Education in Africa Partnership (LEAP), a non-profit social lending fund that provides student financing to youth from the “missing middle” of HE financing, i.e. those from low/middle-income backgrounds who cannot access conventional loans, nor benefit from bursaries or scholarships. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, financing issues are a key factor in preventing students from enrolling, completing their studies and choosing courses that enhance employability. By opening access to HE and incentivising academic success, the partnership aims to strengthen economic prosperity and create pathways to gainful employment. 

Over two cohorts, LEAP has supported more than 350 students in Kenyan universities with financial support, including disabled students and orphans. FCDO has supported this ongoing four-year pilot phase which is enabling the partnership to demonstrate the effectiveness and scalability of their student financing model. 

There are eight other partnerships in the SPHEIR portfolio that are tackling systemic issues and catalysing reform in more than ten countries. From transforming digital education in Myanmar to establishing a new National Qualifications Framework and an outcome-based education in Sierra Leone. For more information on the SPHEIR partnerships, there are project profiles here.

We are pleased to see such a broad range of dynamic partnerships which are making a real difference to HE systems internationally and harnessing the UK HE sector’s expertise and knowledge to contribute internationally. Looking forward, sharing lessons from SPHEIR with the HE community globally will hopefully benefit and inspire them to continue pulling together with FCDO towards this common purpose. 

(1) THE developing ranking based on Sustainable Development Goals  (2) World Bank (2008) Accelerating catch-up: Tertiary education for growth in Sub-Saharan Africa