Expert Opinion

Improving health through education

Whilst a new set of goals for the UN have been established to improve public health and education and to end poverty, Professor Ieuan Ellis spent an inspiring week in Zambia, joining the graduation celebrations of students graduating from our MSc Public Health Promotion course. In today’s post, Professor Ellis reflects on his visit and on the positive future that the new Sustainable Development Goals aim to bring.
During the last week of September 2015 the United Nations convened and formally signed up to the new Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 new Global Goals which renew the international commitment to work collectively to build on the progress achieved between 2000-2015 from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The new goals include key targets to be achieved by 2030 related to the reduction of poverty, reducing inequality, improving public health and improved access to education.

In the same week as the signing of these new Global Goals I had the privilege of joining the graduation celebrations for our MSc Public Health Promotion students in Lusaka, Zambia. This Leeds Beckett postgraduate course was established in 2004 with a bespoke public health promotion curriculum tailored to the needs of the Zambian health system. Developed in partnership with Chainama College of Health Sciences, the course is delivered through a combination of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ block teaching by academic staff from Leeds Beckett University, supplemented by on-line learning support and in-country research project supervision.

The course aims to educate and empower senior health professionals, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to effectively develop, implement and evaluate public health promoting interventions. The underpinning health promotional philosophy of the course is based on social models of health and empowerment of communities. This differentiates the course from other more traditional biomedical models of health promotion which focus on managing ill-health.

Over the last 11 years the delivery of the course in partnership with Chainama College has flourished and with financial support in the form of bursaries from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission, there is high competition for places. A mixture of bursary-funded and self-funded students travel from across Zambia and neighbouring countries for teaching blocks delivered in Lusaka, combining part-time masters’ study with their busy professional working lives. Many students juggle the demands of this study, with holding down more than one job, alongside overcoming often extreme challenges faced in their daily lives.

At the pre-graduation dinner I was moved by the emotive speeches from graduating students who conveyed their enormous gratitude for the educational opportunity they had received and gave powerful accounts of the transformational impact of this educational experience on both their personal and professional lives and development.

One student spoke of the growth in her confidence to challenge existing knowledge and practice and indeed to challenge her tutors. …going against the cultural norm in an African education system… ’I didn’t agree with everything the tutors said and felt confident to challenge them’.

Another student said that his coping strategy to overcome the fear of not being able to successfully complete the whole course, was to keep positively focused on the learning process and experience of the course a block at a time…  ‘I told myself to enjoy the ride as well …as the final outcome of the course’.

Several students spoke of how the course had enabled them to design, lead and implement new research-based public health promotion programmes in their organisations and local communities. One student has already had a research paper accepted for an international conference in Mexico … something not often achieved by our masters’ graduates studying in UK.

However the most powerful narrative that stood out for me was that of graduating student Francois, who joined the course from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.  A country ravaged in recent years by civil unrest and war, his commitment and resilience in the face of unspeakable personal challenge and trauma to complete his studies moved me to tears. During a period in which he was confined to hiding in his house with his family while neighbours in his village were being murdered and raped… he had contacted our university to politely request an extension to the date for his assignment submission. Persevering in the face of the most extreme adversity, and although he took longer to complete the course than planned, he has now successfully passed all course work to graduate. He had travelled from Congo to Lusaka to attend the graduation dinner and ceremony with his wife and brother … I am immensely proud of his achievement. He was eternally grateful to our university for the educational opportunity and massively grateful to his tutors and his peers on the course for their support. His fellow students had voted him for a Deans’ prize for special achievement in recognition of the immense commitment, determination and courage he had shown. I was delighted and humbled to personally present him with this prize.

With the Global Goals including a renewed commitment to improving health through education, these highly personalised accounts of our graduating students in Zambia provided compelling and inspiring evidence of the importance and impact that can be achieved. It was an absolute privilege to confer degrees on these wonderful graduands, sharing the joy of their celebrations and confident in the knowledge that their commitment to deliver the new Global Goals through promoting public health will be unwavering…. and effective.