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500 days and beyond in education

We stand now at approximately 500 days from the initial target date for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals set in 1990.

These goals represent the most ambitious shared aspirations of humanity the modern world ever assembled. As we take measure now of the successes and shortfalls of this global effort, redouble our efforts for real, sustained progress in these final 500 days, and establish the framework for beyond 2015, I am inspired by what has been achieved and worried about what comes next.

Because of the Institute for International Education’s special focus on widening access to higher education and our research on global trends in tertiary academic mobility, we think the post-2015 development agenda needs to be prepared to take account of MDG 1’s success.  

More students than ever are going to be ready for secondary and then higher education in the period ahead, but the capacity of most national systems to meet this demand is likely to be quite limited. Per capita investment in tertiary education in many countries is actually declining and only a few countries today have room for substantially more students in their institutions of higher education. Research is also consistently showing that OpenCourseWare and MOOCs are no substitute for university education.

The world will need to build more tertiary education capacity and also be more open. The costs will be high. But the costs of having the generation who benefited so much from the first MDGs join armed militias instead of going on to further schooling will be infinitely higher.

For now, we are heartened by increasing global access to education at the primary level, now at 90 percent enrollment globally. Still, there are nearly 60 million children of primary school age not enrolled. A final 500-day push — essentially two more academic enrolment periods — should raise us to greater than 90 percent, but those last 10 percent will be the hardest to enroll. We applaud the achievement of reaching greater gender equity in primary education, though we lament we are far from such equity beyond the primary level. In fact, it is movement beyond the primary level that is absolutely essential as we consider the next set of MDGs.

In today’s global economy, a primary education is not sufficient to avoid extreme poverty. Secondary and tertiary educations, both academic and technical or vocational, are vital rungs on the ladder leading out of extreme poverty. Educational access at all levels (primary, secondary, higher, and vocational) must therefore be supported. Creating opportunities and institutional infrastructures that will enable students to transition successfully from primary and secondary school to tertiary education must be a central tenet of the global education agenda.

Educational access, equity and quality of education are paramount to ensuring that students can fulfill their full potential.

Access to tertiary education is integral to the success of individual persons and nations in the 21st century. With increasing global labor market demands for specialized knowledge and advanced technology skills, tertiary education will become more important than ever to sustained social and economic development. Higher education plays an essential role in achieving other global priorities: the eradication of poverty and hunger; improving maternal and child health; increasing gender equality and the empowerment of women; combatting pandemic diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

At IIE, we pay close attention to the relationship between higher education and international development. We partner with governments, international development agencies, foundations, universities and corporations, leveraging its international networks to collaborate on sustainable solutions for long-term development. Our work focuses on three things:

  1. Educational and technical training and exchange programs.
  2. Widening access to education and training of women, especially through science and technology programs.
  3. Supporting students, scholars, and higher education in countries in crisis, post-conflict, and transition.

For example, we are now piloting the Higher Education Readiness program to provide 200 girls in Ethiopia with the resources to not only complete secondary education but also to access higher education. With only a tiny percentage of Ethiopian girls now in university, this small pilot has the potential to make a big difference.

We support the conclusions of the U.N. High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which recommends the post-2015 framework for sustainable development “recognize peace and good governance as core elements of wellbeing, not optional extras.” IIE was founded in 1919 in the post-World War I era by scholars and statesmen who recognized that opening minds to the world through international scholarships and student and scholar exchanges would increase global understanding and peacebuilding. Over the past 95 years we have supported hundreds of thousands of such scholarships and exchanges in partnership with governments, foundations, corporations and other organizations. We have seen firsthand how these individuals have returned to their countries of origin to build bridges of understanding and improve good governance. Many of these individuals have also contributed to educational excellence and building educational capacity in their home countries, drawing on the knowledge and connections they developed in labs and classrooms in the United States.

The HLP also calls for forging a new global partnership “based on a common understanding of our shared humanity, underpinning mutual respect and mutual benefit in a shrinking world.” We feel strongly at IIE that our model of working with academia, governments, civil society, international corporations and foundations to support greater access to education and training and more international exchange experiences is consistent with this call for a new global partnership. Only a continued, concerted effort by all these partners will be enough to make the final 500-day push significant, and to ensure the post-2015 agenda is responsive to the needs of our new millennium.  In IIE’s experience, increasing access to higher education will be absolutely essential to meeting these needs.

There is much to celebrate. A global reduction of extreme poverty by half in 15 years is a remarkable, unprecedented achievement. Yet, the spirit of the MDGs requires that we make these final 500 days count in whatever sectors we focus our efforts. And all of us, partners in sustainable development, must commit to a post-2015 development agenda that recommits to achieving the as yet unreached MDG targets, and builds on past successes to take us to the next level of sustainable development. The IIE is proud to join these efforts and to do our part.

Education is the best way any of us have to make the world we share a less dangerous place.

Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using#MDGmomentum.