What does the UK Aid Strategy mean for Education and Development?

By Simon McGrath, University of Nottingham.

UKaidThe UK Government has released a new aid strategy. That is, a government-wide strategy for aid, not a DFID strategy. The potential advantages and disadvantages of this have been raised elsewhere, as has the stress on “the national interest” throughout the document. However, here the focus is on what it means for a UK approach to education and development.

There are four priorities in the strategy and all have implications for education. Collectively, they suggest a significant change in Britain’s approach to education and development. The priorities are:

  • Strengthening global peace, security and governance
  • Strengthening resilience and response to crises
  • Promoting global prosperity
  • Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable.

In the 22 pages there is very little about education, but that is true for other sectors too. So, let’s look at the four priorities for what they might mean for education.

Peace, security and governance: Education has long had much to say about peace, though often it also has been complicity in violence of multiple kinds. There is likely to be an even greater interest in the future in aspects of education such as the role of madrassas in promoting peaceful dialogue or in education’s role in national rebuilding post-conflict.

More controversial will be the way that education might engage with security. Critiques already exist of the “securitisation of education”. This has been criticised on the level of broad principle but also for its practical impact in making educators even more likely to be targets of violence. That much of the money allocated under the new strategy will be managed by the National Security Council is likely to be a worry for many in the UK international education community.

However, there are real opportunities here too for a new dialogue. These are areas that DFID is relatively new in addressing in its education work, but there are elements of the academic and NGO community that have a wealth of knowledge on such issues. The strategy as a whole suggests a shift of funding towards the MENA region and Syria in particular. DFID is strengthening its education advisory team in this region but there is a new opportunity for a UK dialogue about education in that region, hopefully informed by the large numbers of educational doctoral students from the region who are studying here. These opportunities come with inherent challenges of how DFID will simultaneously shift funding towards the MENA region where education access and quality is relatively good yet at the same time “tackle extreme poverty and help the world’s most vulnerable” who are mostly based outside of the MENA region, particularly when we consider numbers of out-of-school children.

Resilience: Again, this is not an area that has not been a major DFID educational priority, although “education, environment and climate” has been the subject of a 2015 topic guide. Resilience has become an increasingly important element of academic debates about education for sustainable development and there may be particularly interesting lessons to learn from those working with small island developing states, which have taken a recent lead on education for resilience initiatives. A dialogue with the Commonwealth may be particularly useful here.

There may also be opportunities here for bridging different communities of practice and in bridging the humanitarian-development divide. Those working on education and development, education and environment and education and emergencies have often engaged too little. There is an opportunity here to build a new dialogue around education’s role in building resilience and responding to crises.

Prosperity: Education clearly has a role in promoting prosperity. In mainstream development texts, it is commonplace to see human capital as a building block of prosperity. However, there has been far less work that provides rich accounts of how education and skills support innovation and technological capability development at firm, sector and economy levels. With the advent of the SDGs, moreover, these issues need to be more clearly linked to decent work and sustainability. DFID has begun to move back into engagement with vocational education and training and higher education, recognising the potential importance of both to prosperity. However, neither policy nor research in this area is as well-developed as it needs to be.

Equally, it is widely argued that the STEM agenda is particularly vital in supporting prosperity. However, STEM education and development has not been a major focus of either DFID or British academia for the past 20 years. A stronger focus on STEM does not only raise the importance of post-school education. The ability to attract technological jobs and to create them domestically is also related to the wider distribution of STEM capabilities through secondary schooling. Indeed, across the first three priorities, there is a strong implication that secondary education needs to be given more attention than in the MDG era.

Poverty: Where the strategy most concretely engages with education is in this area, linked to a 2015 manifesto pledge to support 11m more learners into and through school. There is also some emphasis on the continued commitment to girls’ education. This is the theme that feels most like a continuation of what DFID’s education work has been best at in recent years. It is important that the unfinished business of the MDGs and EFA is not forgotten in the rush to new agendas. The main challenge here may lie in ensuring that this agenda – and education’s role therein – is closely articulated with the other three strands.

In recent years, DFID has been moving from a focus on getting children into schools to one of their learning once there. The implications of the UK aid strategy are that the education remit has got much bigger. The new priorities imply a much greater focus on what is learned in school, including through school cultures, about peace, resilience, innovation, etc. They also imply a move way from a schools-only focus, something that the DFID approach to education had begun to anticipate. This is going to be challenging to achieve with the government’s statement of expanding payment by results as part of its new aid strategy (page 21) when we know that in the education sector, institutional and structural issues mean that learning outcomes can’t be changed overnight.

For the UK international education and development constituency, the new strategy is likely to be important in its influence on what will be funded in future years and where it will be funded (both in which countries and by which UK government departments). The implied broadening of the DFID education agenda has much to commend in it, though there will be particular sensitivities around the security dimension. There is knowledge in both DFID and in the wider international education and development community about all four strands. However, much of the recent dialogue has concentrated on the fourth. There is a moment, therefore, in 2016 for a new dialogue about the broader UK education and development agenda.

This blog was originally posted on 12th January 2016 on the UKFIET Blog.

Simon McGrath is Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development.. Email: simon.mcgrath@nottingham.ac.uk

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,300 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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