By Richard Grubb, Senior Policy Officer, UUKi, and Partnership Manager, SPHEIR

27 April 2021 - 15:07

SPHEIR’s Senior Responsible Owner at the FCDO, Mostafa Al-Mossallami described his pride at the initial achievements of the programme during a wide-ranging discussion focused on post-pandemic UK ODA investment in higher education, as part of a breakout session at UUKi’s recent annual International Higher Education Forum.

The fully online conference saw more than 500 delegates from across the UK higher education sector attend the two-day event which focused on the fallout from the pandemic and the impact that it will have on the future of international higher education.

Mostafa was one of three speakers who provided presentations as part of the session ‘Building back Stronger: How can the UK support post-pandemic higher education reform in low-income countries?’ He was joined by Professor Ernest Aryeetey, Secretary General of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and Professor Jeremy Bagg, who leads the Scottish Government funded MalDent Project – a multi partner project that has established Malawi’s first Bachelor of Dental Surgery programme. Dr Joanna Newman, Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which leads the PEBL project, closed the session by making clear her belief that UK investment in programmes such as SPHEIR will be vital in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  

In reflecting on the past four years of the SPHEIR programme, Mostafa expressed the FCDO’s pride at the work that the whole programme has done to make higher education safer and more open for adolescent women and girls, through gender sensitivity training for staff on several projects, and in particular, through TESCEA’s work designing gender responsive pedagogical training. He also picked out the work of PADILEIA and the importance, and relevance, of the learnings from the project not just for refugees and displaced people, but in creating a model for widening access for marginalised communities around the world.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Mostafa noted that “this period has been a major test case for the value of international cooperation and partnership” and that there are examples within SPHEIR that it is working, “one example has been Prepared for Practice, which has built up the resilience of the health service in Somaliland and ensured that it is better prepared for the impacts of Covid-19”.

SPHEIR was described by Mostafa as a valuable experience for all those connected with the programme, but for Dr Joanna Newman, it has been much more than that; she noted that through higher education’s inclusion in the SDGs, all countries have committed to providing inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. “If we are going to be able to do that, higher education’s role must be recognised; that means recognised in its contribution to primary education, to pedagogic education, to teaching, to research - applied and basic, and to creating those kinds of citizens who create an environment where economies can flourish, and people’s lives can be happy and successful. Higher education is key to all these things”.

Reflecting on the issue of continued UK ODA investment in higher education, Mostafa remarked that the FCDO see HE partnerships as a win-win. “If we can support the HE sector to help tackle global challenges like poverty and the delivery of the SDGs, that in turn helps us by strengthening our national security. But it also means that by broadening UK soft power we can help partner countries become our diplomatic and trading partners of the future”.

As SPHEIR projects enter the final year of their activity it is not yet clear what role higher education will have in the FCDO’s future education priorities. Mostafa noted that the FCDO will not rush into decisions on funding priorities and will “take the opportunity to take stock…and consider what went well, and what didn’t go so well” with SPHEIR. The external evaluation of the programme, which is being delivered by a consortium led by IPE Tripleline and including Technopolis Group and the University of Bedfordshire, will be a crucial part of this. However, as a programme that has embedded learning into its design, there are already important lessons and early examples of project impact to be considered, and the programme intends to focus strongly on lesson learning in 2021.

In closing the session, Dr Joanna Newman reflected on higher education’s role in global development. While traditionally, development agencies have tended to focus on primary and secondary education as the starting and end point, SPHEIR has been able to demonstrate that this is absolutely not the case; “if you want to change the dial and you want to create a system in a country which gives people an opportunity to contribute to their own society, then you have to include tertiary education within the funding environment. It’s not more important, or less, its equally as important”.