What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.
Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.
Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/mccowan/
Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.
Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?
Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.
Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?
Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.
Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?
Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.
Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?
Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.
Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?
Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.
Will Brehm 13:13
Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.
Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?
Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.
Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?
Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…
Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.
Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.
Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.
Tristan McCowan 17:46
Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.
Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things
Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?
Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.
Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.
Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.
Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.
Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.
Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.
Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.
Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.
Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.
Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?
Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.
Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.
Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.
Higher Education for and Beyond the SDGs