International scholarships and the SDGs

Collaborative workspace with five laptops
Dr John Kirkland

Half a cheer for the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Too all-embracing to be achieved in the timescale available, maybe even too ambitious to hold some governments effectively to account. On the other hand, they have once again focussed the world on development issues, and in an age where numerical rankings and performance targets are all the rage, they will provide a universal measure of progress.

From the perspective of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), it's also good to see increased prominence given to tertiary education in the SDGs – an outcome which our own 'Beyond 2015' campaign, along with others, actively advocated for. Still not as prominent as we would like, but enough to remind the international community that the needs of the world's poorest countries extend beyond basic literacy – however desirable that may be.

The problem with targets

I should also be delighted at the specific reference to scholarships. Tucked away in Goal 4 for more inclusive education is a target to 'substantially increase the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small developing states and African countries... for enrolment in higher education'. Some subject priorities are given, and it is made clear the target applies both to study in developed countries and within developing ones.

So far, so good. If any organisation in the world has championed the critical role that scholarships play in development, it's the ACU. So why do I have a sense of unease about this?

In essence, my concern is not about the role of scholarships, but the role of targets – and more particularly the way in which some governments are likely to use them. At best, a crude measure based on numbers will be manipulated to include scholarships that have no development impact. At worst, the desire to meet the target might actually divert resources away from development.

Not all scholarships are about development, nor should they be. It is quite legitimate for a government, university or private donor to offer learning opportunities based on other criteria, such as academic development or maintaining the wider reputation of the hosts. Sometimes, the reasons for scholarships can be described as anti-developmental. Some countries or universities use them specifically to promote brain drain, by attracting talent from developing countries to settle in developed ones.

And where scholarships are development based, they need to distinguish between developing individuals and developing societies. Should scholarships go to the most able candidates? Or should they go to the poorest individuals, or those who could not otherwise afford to attend university (the two categories are quite different)? In principle, the answer to all of these questions is yes – especially when looked at from the perspective of personal development. From the perspective of a developing society, different questions emerge. A scholarship recipient needs to be well placed to utilise their knowledge to the benefit of others, whether through teaching, policy or wider innovation. Providing northern doctorates at a cost of $150,000 a throw is an expensive form of development, if the only beneficiary is the individual.

Hard targets and loose definitions

We must also define what a scholarship is in the first place. Some governments subsidise higher education for all international students, without regard for merit, subject, nationality or personal circumstances. Should all the recipients of such awards count as scholarships? If so, existing OECD figures suggest that the biggest beneficiaries in Africa will be those relatively historically prosperous countries, such as Algeria and Morocco, rather than low income ones. Is that really the intention of the new target? None of these issues negate the idea of using scholarships as a development target – but they do emphasise the need for further work in interpreting the target.

One approach may be to demand that development scholarships have clear 'developmental' aims, which immediately highlights the paucity of basing targets on the principle of 'more scholarships' rather than the type of scholarship. An alternative, potentially contradictory, approach is to define a scholarship as 'developmental' not simply when it proposed as such by a donor, but when the skills and knowledge gained are used to generate developmental effect. From this perspective a whole range of international education programmes, including those ostensibly aimed at 'soft power' or even attracting talent abroad, may turn out to be developmental, whilst some designed as development initiatives may have far lesser net effect.

As well as clear definitions from the outset, scholarship programmes need to have comprehensive measurement frameworks if their contribution to the SDGs is to be understood. This does not only apply to the kind of scholarships routinely funded by aid agencies, but also those with public diplomacy and academic access premises. We need to define exactly what constitutes a 'development' scholarship, where this sits in a (much needed) holistic view of scholarships, and how best to understand their outcomes and impact. When these things are in place, then we will be much better placed to measure the impact of scholarships on the SDGs – and I predict that it will be a positive one.