The UK’s deep ODA cuts are wrong and counterproductive

The shortfall will damage the UK’s reputation and halt projects that are making a real difference to communities worldwide, says Joanna Newman

March 22, 2021
A hand under a tap dripping water, symbolising cuts to the UK's ODA spending
Source: iStock

There is no doubt that UK higher education benefits enormously from internationalisation. On the research side, cross-border collaboration enhances national capacities to make breakthroughs and publish impactful papers. On the teaching side, overseas students bring an international classroom to universities, contributing significantly to the UK’s cultural and economic landscape.

The UK government’s recently refreshed International Education Strategy acknowledges universities as a critical national asset and underlines the actual and potential contribution of international partnerships to national exports. And last week’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – titled "Global Britain in a Competitive Age"  also recognises the critical role that both science and education can play in supporting the UK’s soft power and global influence.

However, this rather transactional framing of the benefits of international collaboration misses the larger point: that fostering connections between students, researchers and universities has the potential to do good in the world by addressing educational inequalities and strengthening global research for the benefit of all.

While talent is evenly distributed across the world, stark regional disparities persist between higher education systems in terms of quality and capacity. According to Unesco, the Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratio in North America and Europe is 77 per cent, while in sub-Saharan Africa it is only 9 per cent. Likewise, limited access to research funding, training and infrastructure in low and lower middle income contexts constrains research output and impact. For example, while sub-Saharan African countries have greatly increased both the quantity and quality of their research output, the region still accounts for less than 1 per cent of global research output – despite comprising 12.5 per cent of the world’s population, with almost two-thirds under the age of 25.

Over the past decade – during which spending on overseas aid has been set in law at 0.7 per cent of GNI – the UK government, in partnership with universities, has pioneered innovative ways to use Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to support international higher education and collaborative research, generating new insights and solutions for sustainable development, while simultaneously strengthening research and higher education capacity in developing contexts.

With the relatively small investment of £45 million, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education, Innovation and Reform programme has delivered change at the level of both institutions and whole systems in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East. For example, the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning, led by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, is helping to enhance access to high-quality education through the development of quality-assured, credit-bearing degree courses delivered through blended learning. The programme has already benefited more than 10,000 students at 24 universities across East Africa.

Meanwhile, in a short time, UK Research and Innovation’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports cutting-edge research to address challenges faced by developing countries, has made a huge impact. It has catalysed equitable new partnerships, driven the UK research and innovation ecosystem to be more responsive to the 2030 UN sustainable development agenda, and delivered new insights and solutions to global challenges that affect us all, from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate resilience. 

That is why I am so disappointed by UKRI’s recent announcement that the drop in the UK’s overseas aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GNI (at least until “the fiscal situation allows”) will result in a £120 million shortfall for 2021-22. This scale of cuts will undermine the sustainability of projects that are making a real difference to communities worldwide.

If we must think in transactional terms, the cuts will also damage the UK’s international reputation and soft power. And, as others have pointed out, it runs counter to the ambition, articulated in the Integrated Review, to be a “science and technology superpower”.

As we consider an uncertain future, we must recognise – and capture – what has been made possible through UK ODA-funded programmes: the sustainable partnerships developed and the lessons learned about what works – and what doesn’t.  

In doing so, we can not only make a compelling case for future ODA investment in higher education to the Treasury ahead of the autumn spending review, but also ensure that the lessons from these programmes inform policy and practice across the Commonwealth and beyond.

Playing an ongoing leadership role in enabling the world’s universities to deliver collaboratively on the Sustainable Development Goals would truly represent "Global Britain" in action.

Joanna Newman is chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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