Challenging the “single story” in a multiplex world: nuancing conceptualisations of aid and partnership in the higher education sector

The emergence of regional blocs, new powers and ‘global civil society’ has been described as a key development in the shift towards a ‘multiplex’, multipolar world order (Acharya 2017). As global governance has diversified in this contemporary geopolitical context, so too have the modalities, rationales, and directions of international funding for higher education systems in low- and middle-income contexts. The shifts in funding for higher education are complex, given the simultaneous (and often competing) pressures on donors – both from donor and recipient national governments and from global policy norms relating to “aid” (e.g. the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness) and the role of higher education in development (e.g. as specified in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals) – and the emergence of newer actors in this space (e.g. private sector foundations and bilateral agencies with little prior history of support for higher education outside their borders). However, the limited scholarship on international support for higher education insufficiently attends to these complexities, thereby decreasing our collective ability to understand how and why donors choose to support higher education in less-resourced parts of the world.

This webinar will nuance the current donor narrative by presenting the findings of a qualitative study, focused on the top fifteen funders of higher education in low- and middle-income countries between 2011 and 2020 (based on available OECD data). The study – comprising both document review and key informant interviews with organisational representatives – explores the ways in which international funding is understood by the key actors involved in supporting higher education, the rationales that drive the different types of actors, and the manner in which ideological positions, roles, and rationales of key actors affect the modalities of support to higher education. The findings illuminate the dangers of presenting a singular narrative regarding international support for higher education, as each organisation involved in the study was found to fund higher education overseas for distinct reasons and via different modalities – and to be affected by contextual forces when opting to make changes to their funding strategies. The findings also complicate widely held notions of ‘partnership’ in aid discourse, exposing donors’ (geo)political aims within their specific funding strategies and rationales.