A few caveats at the onset here. This reads a bit more like an academic piece which it largely is. It is drawn from something larger I wrote a bit ago for another paper. It might also read like an attack on the SDGs, which is not my point. The point here is that the SDGs have generated some incredible results and I sincerely support them, but we must be mindful of what is being mobilised in our pursuit of them. My focus is education and I suggest that the provisions of the SDGs related specifically to that field suggest particular scaled interventions (or at least make those approaches particularly attractive). Scale exacts pressure on particular types of education.
Ultimately, greater access to and retention through education is a great thing and I would struggle to suggest otherwise. But we must be a bit/mildly skeptical of at scale solutions to fairly stubborn nuanced educational problems. The scale part drives this skepticism and the use of technology (hence my repeated references to digital education) compounds this.
This is especially true for higher education as its massification is mobilised by calls for widening participation and universal education has led to greater domestic investments in formal digital education at traditional universities and open universities; as well as a predictable influx of activity from global education providers and international development organisations determined to address this capacity. It is in this influx and in these investments that we begin to see agents and relationalities emerge: the alignment of educational priorities with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the attendant values embedded within them; the proscribed technologies associated with digital education recoding knowledge exchanges and practices; and the access provisions that such models engender. The SDGs in particular have considerable capacity for structuring digital education and restructuring local educational autonomy.
The SDGs points on education (Goal 4) call on member states to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong opportunities for all” by the year 2030 (UN 2016), an objectively laudable goal. Several targets within this goal and the indicators associated with these targets are powerfully proscriptive for how digital education is realised in developing contexts largely as a means of achieving them, and what mobilities are enacted as a result. Of greatest (direct) relevance to this post are:
4.3: By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university (Indicator 4.3.1: Participation rate of youth and adults in formal and non-formal education and training in the previous 12 months, by sex
4.7: By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (Indicator 4.7.1: Extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development, including gender equality and human rights, are mainstreamed at all levels in: (a) national education policies, (b) curricula, (c) teacher education and (d) student assessment).
4.b: By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries (Indicator 4.b.1: Volume of official development assistance flows for scholarships by sector and type of study
4.c: By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States (Indicator 4.c.1: Proportion of teachers in: (a) pre-primary; (b) primary; (c) lower secondary; and (d) upper secondary education who have received at least the minimum organized teacher training (e.g. pedagogical training) pre-service or in-service required for teaching at the relevant level in a given country (UN 2016)
Note that massification is explicit in these targets (“access for all”, “all learners”, “substantially expand”, “substantially increase” and so forth), suggesting again the need for at scale educational provisions consistent with the prior widening participation discussion. All require significant structural reconfiguration to ensure success: 4.3 requires a significant and gender equitable increase in participation (which is certainly welcome!); 4.7 suggests a significant curricular redesign and expansion; and 4.c suggests a significant increase in enrolments in teacher training programmes. 4.b enacts a particular set of international student mobilities with significant impact on the coherence of local communities. Taken together, they represent a significant massification effort, and serve to contribute to the “overwhelming drive to provide ‘technical fixes’ to the challenges of widening provision”.
These SDGs are laden with underlying ideologies of “individual, autonomy, rationalism, rights, liberty, and equality” (Toukan 2017), which further restructure local autonomy and the coherence of local educational systems towards more open ones (however defined, but largely seen as an address of scale). Beyond merely shifting the configuration of education towards more ‘open’ systems, the SDGs attempt “to ‘liberate’ the user from social structure and hierarchy, boosting individual freedoms and reducing centralized controls over what can and what cannot be done” (Selwyn, 2009). Liberation, individualization, and freedom become the new structural configurations on which local digital education systems are supported, and local knowledge practices are renegotiated. “Structural power and neoliberal ideologies are glossed over in the SDGs and are being promoted in controversial ways already in developing countries” (Sultana 2018). Ideologies, rhetoric, policy, and practice are all sequenced and bound.
One such structural manifestation of open is the continued, even increased, reliance on open universities as the focus point of this at scale provision. Indira Gandhi National Open University has the largest enrolment in the world (at over four million), Pakistan Allama Iqbal Open University is 6th, and Bangladesh Open University is 7th. Scale aside, of particular note is the new, or newly foregrounded, geographies being engendered as a result: most exist at the national (Virtual University of Pakistan and Nepal Open University, eg); regional (Andhra Pradesh Open University, eg); or even ideological level. The open university concept is expanding rapidly on the African continent in parallel with growing technological availability and use (Amutabi and Oktech 2003), and policy emerging from the adherence to SDGs and widening participation efforts. Yet this is not an ahistorical emergence, but rather a continued, if accelerated, systematic expansion of higher education overall. The University of South Africa (UNISA), admittedly not an open university but one with large scale digital provisions, emerged from the 19th century and is the largest university system in Africa. Again, we have open as proxy for new or newly foregrounded geographies at the national (National Open University of Nigeria, eg), the regional (Open University of West Africa, African Virtual University, Islamic Online University, eg.).
So again this is not to say that widening participation to education consistent with the SDGs is a negative thing. It is hard to imagine that could ever be the case. We just need to be mindful of the accelerating mobilisation taking place here: towards (largely digital) institutions of mass education and away from local institutions (if they existed in the first instance).