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SPHEIR: driving innovation for higher education reform

66184The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has recently launched the SPHEIR programme – Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform.  This is backed by £45m of UK-government funds and aims to transform aspects of higher education in low-income countries. It will support approximately twelve multi-actor partnerships to improve access, quality, relevance and affordability of higher education over an initial five-year period. Its focus is firmly on “innovation”, and the use of ICTs is expected to play a major role in the programme.

DFID, like other donors, recognises that higher education (HE) plays a critical role in the social and economic development of any country, but while the Millennium Development Goals focused on basic education, HE received relatively little attention (2000-2015). A Higher Education Task Force was therefore established by DFID in 2013 to examine how HE-sector development could best be supported in the future.  The Task Force recommended that DFID focus on the following four areas:

  • the use of new models of teaching and learning that combine quality, relevance and affordability
  • reform of governance, management and financing of HE systems and institutions to underpin sustainable improvements in performance
  • concerted action at sector and institutional level to deliver better access and outcomes for under-represented groups
  • clear improvements in research quality and a stronger interface between research and policy/industry.

One of the principal tools recommended to deliver these goals was “high-value partnerships, drawing together dynamic sets of actors who can generate creative solutions”. Thus the Strategic Partnerships programme was developed with the aim of

  • preparing HE systems for the future
  • attracting new types of player into the HE space
  • testing new models of delivery.

SPHEIR is not a replica of previous HE partnership programmes, which generally focused on smaller-scale initiatives with limited systemic impact.  It aims to catalyse innovation to make higher education systems more effective, relevant, accessible and affordable in DFID priority countries.  However, because this innovation may take a number of forms, the programme is quite deliberately not specifying what it is looking for.  “Innovation” could involve new curricula, staff development, private and public delivery models, trans-national cooperation, funding mechanisms, research development, system infrastructure, governance, or anything else!

The first call for proposals for SPHEIR partnerships was opened on 24 May and was featured at last month’s eLearning Africa conference in Cairo.  This call is for two “demonstration” projects, both of which must include the use of technology-enhanced learning to deliver higher education and must focus on labour market needs and employability for their respective target audiences.

  • One project will deliver HE to populations displaced by the crisis in Syria currently based in neighbouring countries.
  • One project will deliver HE in Sub-Saharan Africa in one or more of DFID’s priority countries.

SPHEIR is committed to supporting the ideas that will deliver transformational change at scale.  SPHEIR partnerships will be funded with up to £5m over three to five years and will be expected to deliver results that are sustainable beyond that funding period.

One of the key features of SPHEIR partnerships is that they can involve collaborators from the global North, the South, and middle-income countries from a range of sectors.

  • public and non-state universities and colleges
  • private-sector firms as suppliers, investors or employers
  • national or international civil society organisations
  • national, trans-national or regional HE authorities or associations.

It is clear that technology has made a massive difference in the way that higher education can be delivered, and it is expected to be a feature of a number of SPHEIR projects.  In the context of low-income countries, however, the following questions are likely to arise:

  • How can the IT infrastructure be developed cost effectively so that it widens access to under-represented groups?
  • What incentives are there for the private sector to become involved with the delivery of HE?
  • How might content initially developed for MOOCs be used as part of locally accredited programmes?
  • How can programmes that seek to be relevant to labour market needs be customised to the local context?
  • How can technology-enhanced learning best be complemented by additional content and delivery on the ground?
  • How can sufficient faculty be trained to provide sustainable teaching capacity for the future?
  • What changes need to be made to government policies to ensure that all of this is possible?

These are complex issues, for which SPHEIR will be seeking innovative solutions.  It was obvious from many of the sessions at the eLearning Africa conference that private and public organisations in Africa and globally are already exploring such solutions. And as many conference participants noted, technology-enhanced learning can be an effective mode of HE delivery in very different situations – which is why SPHEIR is seeking to deploy it in both a “refugee” context, related to the current crisis in Syria, and in a more stable HE system context in Sub-Saharan Africa.

 Applying for SPHEIR funding

Full details of the call-for-demonstration partnerships can be found on the SPHEIR website.  The final submission date for proposals is 20 July 2016.  Individuals and organisations can join the SPHEIR mailing list to receive email updates about the programme.

The SPHEIR programme is managed by a consortium led by the British Council in association with the UK Higher Education International Unit and PwC. Questions about it can be sent to .

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