Date: 25 Apr 2010
Speaker: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Location: Cape Town, South Africa
Deputy President, Ministers, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for this opportunity to address you.
I pay special tribute to Theuns Eloff and the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, and to John Tarrant, John Kirkland, and all their staff.
I thank them not just for their work in convening us here and for creating a community of Commonwealth university vice-chancellors over these last years, but also for their vision and leadership in so many other areas of Commonwealth higher education.
As the ACU approaches its centenary with 508 universities on its books, it is evidently in good health.
I particularly commend the current initiative to broaden and deepen the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan: more South to South awards; more North to South awards; altogether more stakeholders in a flagship Commonwealth programme, 50 years young, and with some 28,000 ambassadors to its name.
With Cape Town as host, I pay tribute to one of this country’s and the world’s oldest and greatest educational establishments, the University of Cape Town, our co-hosts, which began in 1829 as the South African College.
Old UCT may be, but how new it is also, not just in being truly representative of the new South Africa, but also in the new skills it teaches.
These are the skills which can transform societies and catalyse development: science, engineering, commerce, medicine.
UCT sits near the top of a remarkable South African educational pyramid in which 70% of the country’s young people aged 16-20 are in higher education or in some form of further training, and 98% of its children aged 7-15 are in school.
Those are exceptional achievements, and I congratulate you on them.
I should also mention an early example of Commonwealth cooperation: the creation in 1873 by the Cape Parliament of the University of the Cape of Good Hope, which was modelled on the University of London.
That institution changed its name to the University of South Africa in 1916 and gave rise to several other South African universities before becoming a distance teaching university in 1946.
Multi-racial throughout its history, today it is one of the world’s largest open universities.
So the right people have convened us in Cape Town; the right people have responded to the call; and the right topics are on the table.
We are neither ivory-towerists or even ivory-tourists lost in the metaphorical clouds swirling around Table Mountain; no, we are grappling with a very real issue on which our own wisdom is not necessarily accepted wisdom.
That is, the role of Higher Education in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
In these circles, perhaps I hardly need to establish the primacy either of Higher Education or the MDGs.
But – at least since the Jomtien conference of 1990 – there are many in the political sphere and beyond who would focus all of our energies and monies on primary education.
In a Commonwealth in which 30 million of our children do not receive even the basic training of reading, writing and arithmetic, it is indeed an absolute priority.
But in embracing the powerful and passionate logic of that view, I also espouse the view so well stated by Professor Mahmoud Mamdani of Columbia University, when he addressed Commonwealth Education Ministers in this very city in December 2006.
He has since been quoted widely, especially by UNESCO.
‘Higher education is the strategic heart of education’, he claimed then.
‘It is where choices are developed.’
I am also of the view that it is where the real skills and real motors for development are born.
In today’s information societies, knowledge drives economic growth and development, and higher education is the main spring which generates this drive.
Higher education is anything but perfect: it still has limited reach and unequal access; its quality and regulation is uneven for both public and private provision, and - in the wiki-generation - its relationship with technology is still a work in progress.
But these are topics for another time.
What we know, though, is that the health of the Higher Education sector is the surest sign of a society on the move.
Look at the US, China and India, so strongly wedded to expanding Higher Education.
Look at a country like Nigeria, which had one university in 1961 and then 40 by 1991.
Higher Education leads countries to higher things.
As for the MDGs, I feel a personal sense of involvement, in that - in my UN days - I was among the hands at their creation.
I fully acknowledge that they have been, and will be, keenly and critically debated.
They had ancestry, and in turn they will spawn offspring.
And even now, as we speak, the earth moves beneath them: the rate of global population growth itself is rendering even meeting the initial targets a daunting prospect.
But the fact remains that they constituted were the first globally embraced framework and goals for righting the wrongs of a world in which all – rich and poor – are inextricably bound up.
In effect, they were framed around a compact: the developed world would assist with resources – broadly, through aid, trade, debt relief, and investment – while the developing world would commit to planning its own way out of poverty, while assuring the governance, accountability and targets to see this achieved.
This year – at a major UN conference on the MDGs in New York in September – we will hear what more needs to be done, and it will not make comfortable listening.
Yes, there has in fact been significant progress, but the aggregate figures are distorted by growth in India and China, and they conceal underperformance within regions, and even within countries.
We must be realistic too, in that the biggest gains have been made, and the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.
The task before us – to press to the finishing line – will be much, much harder.
How, then, do we marry the two topics, of Higher Education and the MDGs?
An overarching truth is that universities have been at the core of the development of societies, which is why – fairly obviously – they should be at the centre of meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
This conference may take it as read that universities have the brainpower, the capacity for research and development, the policy analysis and the training skills to answer the MDG call.
And UNESCO may have said it baldly in 2009: ‘At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major contributing force in the eradication of poverty, in sustainable development and in progress towards reaching ... the MDGs and Education for All’.
Yet not everyone will take it as read.
We need to prove it, rather than merely assert it.
Higher education may have its supporters and it may be growing, but it needs to demonstrate its development aims and credentials, and indeed apply them to each of the Goals themselves.
Let us quickly glance at these Goals.
Every university faculty – education, medicine, engineering, the social sciences, the humanities, whichever – should feel that there is something in this for them.
Goal 1, eradicating poverty, is in part achieved by universities as factories of brainpower and business leadership.
Simply, graduates generate wealth: just ask corporations who take their executives and smart workers from the institutions of the developing world.
New Zealand is at one end of the scale with 80% of its student population in Higher Education; Sierra Leone, with 2%, is at the other.
There may be tragic reasons for that, and there may still be the bastion that is Fourah Bay College, but the figure is stark, and other Commonwealth countries have percentage participation rates in single figures, too.
Higher Education’s role in generating wealth may seem a world away from the task of eradicating poverty at the other end of the scale.
Here, we see poverty as a particular issue in rural areas in which agriculture is the main livelihood.
Step forward Higher Education, with its long and honourable tradition of rural development training and research.
Here I pay tribute to more of my colleagues in the Commonwealth constellation: the Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver, has a well-earned reputation for expertise in disseminating learning for development.
I draw your attention to its Lifelong Learning for Farmers Programme, melding local with international solutions in places like India, Uganda, Kenya, Papua New Guinea.
Food security, and developing new technologies for living off the land, are major determinants in the fight against poverty.
Not surprisingly, Goals 2 and 3 – ensuring universal primary education, and gender parity in all walks of life, but starting with education – are the Goals which are tailor-made for University assistance, often from Faculties of Education and – increasingly – from Departments of Gender.
They are best seen in the context of UNESCO’s estimate that at least 10 million additional teachers will be needed worldwide by 2015 if Universal Primary Education is to be achieved, and a serious start made on expanding secondary education.
This represents another 15% of the current global teaching workforce.
It also raises the equally profound need for quality – as well as quantity – in the teachers at hand to meet this mammoth challenge.
It is from universities that these extra teachers will come – and indeed it is from universities that trained teachers are already coming, along with national education systems, national curricula, and textbooks.
It is also from the universities that distance learning solutions will emerge.
To support the argument of Higher Education providing the teachers which will supply Primary Education, the Commonwealth of Learning again points me to the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa programme, or TESSA.
TESSA is a successful consortium including 13 African universities, which has reached half a million teachers in the last 12 months with teacher education materials in the form of open educational resources.
Since teachers work on the TESSA materials in their schools, the programme has a direct impact in raising the quality of education for millions of children in their classrooms.
Several of the universities involved are with us today –
like Fort Hare here in South Africa, in the Eastern rather than the Western Cape.
And Primary Education is not the end of it: we can be victims of our success – the more children proceed into Secondary Education, then the more teachers we will continue to need, from the banks of talent and teaching that are the universities.
Goals 4 and 5, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, rely on university research, and university training of nurses and doctors.
Their role in researching vaccines, medicines and treatments for Goal 6 is also self-evident.
I draw your attention here to the Commonwealth/UNESCO regional chair in Education and HIV/AIDS, set up in the University of the West Indies.
Goal 7, seeking environmental sustainability, equally lends itself to university research, especially in the areas of science and technology in the pursuit of a less carbon-intensive trajectory of global growth and development.
It is for you here in this conference to tease out and substantiate those links, and to stake your claim.
Looking at your programme, it is clear that you have assembled more than enough ammunition to state your case.
I see that Stellenbosch University and the University of the West Indies will tell us what it is to build an entire strategic plan around the exigencies of the MDGs.
A roll call of expertise among us here can lead us into other ideas as well.
But perhaps my greatest hope is that the events of the next few days can be underpinned by the spirit of the eighth and final MDG, that of international partnership.
As key institutions of civil society, universities are uniquely positioned between the communities they serve, and the governments they advise.
They help develop the skills and create the knowledge needed to provide effective services to communities, as well as helping sound policy decisions at the government level.
They train leaders, they create and circulate knowledge.
They are at the core of societies – and often in the rebuilding of broken societies (your conference focus, as I understand it, on Tuesday morning).
So I hope that you will examine how best universities can work together.
I know that there are tremendous examples in Canada, for instance, where the government itself funds university twinnings and partnerships all around the world in cooperation and development.
I hope you can also examine the roles of organisations like the ACU itself – and others, like the IAU, in the broad landscape of the educational community – to bring about concerted action.
You are well placed to stimulate cooperation in many networks and to be the guardians and disseminators of best practice.
But most importantly, I hope that you can examine higher education’s relationships with governments and with inter-governmental organisations.
If I seek development wisdom in the United Kingdom, for instance, am I more – or equally – likely to find it in the Department of International Development – or in think-tanks like the Overseas Development Institute – or in universities?
The answer must surely be ‘all’.
And more: we should find a cross-fertilisation of ideas between all parties – each with its unique strengths and perspectives – and capacity – to bring to the same challenges.
In our travels, we come across countless examples of universities in the front line of meeting the MDGs – working with each other, working with local communities, working with governments and inter-governmental organisations.
Each time, we feel a surge of hope.
Your greatest added value is in policy – but frequently it is also in practice.
Whether it is Canadian and Malawian universities combining to develop new and locally available protein sources to replace fish stocks in Lake Nyasa, or the University of Natal and the Kwazulu Department of Health partnering on a primary health care training programme for nurses and midwives ... then it is touching lives.
I have long believed and stated that education and learning is the key to everything – and to the three things which we hold dearest in the Commonwealth: democracy, development and diversity.
The inter-governmental Commonwealth will do all in its power to press the case for Higher Education as an agent of change in meeting the MDGs.
But no one can stake a better claim than you yourselves – and we urge you to do so.
Due to the volcanic ash cloud that grounded flights going in and out of Europe, Kamalesh Sharma was unable to fly to South Africa to deliver this speech.
Download the speech: Association of Commonwealth Universities – Vice Chancellors Conference