Education and Skills Post-2015: What Education; What Development?

By Simon McGrath, University of Nottingham.

There has been a two-part blog [part 1 / part 2] already linked to the 12th September Norrag workshop on education and skills post-2015, but I will try to reflect on some of the key questions that I was left with at the end of the event:

  1. What theory of development should any development goals be built upon?
  2. How far are development goals capable of being universal rather than for the poorest countries?
  3. What is the relationship between global and local goal setting?
  4. What should the relationship be between education goals and overall development goals?
  5. In what way does education contribute to development?

One of the concerns I have always had with the MDGs is that they are not grounded in a coherent theory of development.  Of course, that is hardly surprising.  As international targets, they ultimately emerged from an international diplomatic process, combined with a technical expert process designed to find easily measurable targets.  Thus, what could form the basis of a compromise and what could be (apparently) easily operationalised was more important than a coherent theory.  Yet, it is worth reflecting on some of the messages that are contained in the MDGs.  Crucially, poverty reduction is more important than growth.  At the heart of most of the MDGs is a winning combination of implicit messages that satisfy human rights, human development and, even, human capital adherents by stressing a set of basic rights and/or global public goods that can be seen as being at the heart of development.  However, what they actually have to do with successful development is harder to fathom.  They bear little relationship to “actually existing development”, as in East Asian forms, or to Owen Barder’s recent description of development as an emergent property of a complex adaptive system.  If you achieve the MDGs, life may well be better; but development will not have been achieved.  Now, it could be argued that the new SDGs might be based in a theory of sustainable development, but does anyone really think that a radical and coherent vision of sustainability is in evidence in the current debate about post-2015 goals?  I certainly struggle to see this.

This leads on to my second concern, that the MDGs were not universal but were targets for the South.  It also points to one of greatest challenges that any new goals will face.  Understandably, there is much talk in the current debate that the focus should be on those countries that have not met multiple MDGs and/or on “fragile states”.  But this does not address concerns, such as those from Andy Sumner, that much of any developmental challenge isn’t to be found in the poorest countries.  The more any new goals become narrowly tied to certain regions and levels of development, the greater the risk to global agreements and action.

In some ways, that would not worry me too much as I am very hesitant of the MDGs claim to universality.  In particular, I want to raise two issues in this respect.  First, there are concerns that, whilst good for focusing global action, the MDGs are problematic where they have been simply introduced into national policies regardless of context.  Second, there is a very obvious, but apparently neglected, tension between the top-down discourse of the MDGs and the well-established bottom-up discourses of decentralisation and localism.  It appears that local communities can choose any development goals as long as they are the MDGs.

The above concerns are about development goals more generally but now I want to turn to more education-specific matters.  One very strong strand of our discussions in Geneva was the challenge of not just thinking about what the role of education should be in any post-2015 global development goals, but in thinking what should become of the EFA goals, which also run to 2015.  Although the MDGs have adopted variants of two EFA goals, it is important to stress that the EFA and MDG agendas are not identical, even though there has been a strong tendency (outside UNESCO as EFA lead agency) to reduce EFA to a  subset of the MDGs.  Thus, as an education-for-development community we need to start thinking about our dual strategy.  It may be that we have to be extremely narrow in what it is pragmatic to lobby for in the post-MDG debate. However, there is surely a clearer case in the post-EFA debate to go back to key parts of the original vision and reiterate the vital importance of some of the issues that the MDG-EFA conflation has downplayed: such as, quality in all forms of education, adult / lifelong learning, and vocational education and training. Moreover, we also need to find new ways of ensuring that higher and professional education are not neglected even if they cannot be easily incorporated into a rights-driven universalist account.

My final issue is one that I have raised on previous occasions but strikes me as really pertinent to this debate.  This is the problem of how education is understood in development theory.  I have written at some length regarding the way that leading development economists understand the role of education in development (McGrath 2010).  The short summary is that they hardly understand it at all.   Paul Collier has argued that too much money has gone to education in the MDG era; whilst Jeffrey Sachs has told us that universal schooling is surely the easiest of all MDGs to achieve, and sees the answer to all educational policies as lying in technology.  Even Amartya Sen’s vision of capabilities seems to see education largely in human rights terms and is focused on primary schooling only. Equally, in some of the discussion about the post-MDG settlement there appears to be a sense that we have made enough progress on education that we can afford to downgrade it from our key development priorities, something that is already being reflected in the internal priority setting of some bilateral agencies.

At the same time, we are also seeing simplistic lobbying points about the value of education (most notably a revisiting of very old and widely criticised claims about education’s returns in terms of income, productivity and fertility) that irritate me.  Yes, education can have instrumental benefits but these will always be deeply contextualised as part of complex socio-economic systems and may be very poorly realised, as in highly educated Zimbabwe.

I have argued elsewhere that blaming economists for not understanding education’s importance is not the main point.  Rather, the challenge is for us to communicate better.  The same goes for how we should react to lobbying soundbites about education’s importance.  If education is going to be given a prominent role in the post-2015 development goal setting, then we have urgently to work out how we communicate appropriate messages that are both simple enough to influence others and complex enough to satisfy us.  There are, for instance, economists who believe that learning is a crucial element of development, and we need to work with such potential allies.  We need to know how we can engage with the fascination for “evidence” without being seduced into generating spurious evidence or forgetting complexity and context.  We need to learn how to communicate with those interested in the developmental importance of education in fields such as health and the environment  that can transcend our very different disciplinary understandings.  Most crucially, we need to engage with these issues now.

Reference: McGrath, S. 2010 The Role of Education in Development: an Educationalist’s Response to Some Recent Work in Development Economics. Comparative Education 46, 2, 237-253.

Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development, University of Nottingham, and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. Email:

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