Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Higher Education – my two (well, actually four) cents


University graduates in the Philippines, via Jensm Flikr

It seems like higher education is having a bit of a ‘moment’ in the development world just now. More people than ever are enrolling for universities and new modes of delivery such as Massive Open Online Courses (usually referred to by the wonderful acronym ‘MOOCs’) have the potential to transform how post-secondary learning takes place. The High Level Panel’s emphasis on data has focussed attention on the need to strengthen in-country analytical capacity (although it seems that not everyone agrees on how this should best be done!) and indeed there is growing recognition that achievement of development goals in all sectors will require a higher education system which is able to deliver knowledge and human capital. Meanwhile DFID has set up a Higher Education Taskforce to consider a future policy position on higher education.

Tying in with this flurry of interest, the Association of Commonwealth Universities will be launching its Beyond 2015 Campaign – asking whether higher education is ready to contribute to future development goals. They are calling for inputs from a range of stakeholders and, since this is one of my (many!) soap-box issues, I thought I would take the opportunity to throw in a few thoughts and suggestions of my own…
1. Don’t get too seduced by ‘technological fix’ arguments.
The argument for higher education is sometimes made on the basis that an increase in research will lead to new and better technologies which will make the world a better place. Now, there’s some truth in this – many of the greatest technological developments have come from academia – however, I think it is also misleadingly simplistic. The changes needed to end poverty are complex, deeply political and unlikely to be ‘fixable’ with technological breakthroughs. And indeed many exciting technological fixes are under-used due to political barriers. I think the major benefit that higher education can give to society is increased human capital. A major part of this is through vocational training – to produce the nurses, doctors, engineers and teachers of the future. But higher education can also increase the ability of people in all professions to investigate, question and think critically. Such skills are crucial to build societies which grapple with seemingly intransigent problems – and demand better response from their governments.
2. Focus on the organisation…
I know that this is not an original point – but it bears repeating. No amount of funding for research or higher education will lead to sustainable change if the institutions providing it are not well set up and managed. This applies to ‘traditional universities’ – but also to new modes of higher education which may not rely on a physical presence. Support for higher education may need to focus on some of the underlying issues which are crucial, but sometimes not sexy enough to get attention! This includes efficient and transparent finance and accounting systems, effective campus bandwidth management, responsive IT support, well-resourced and proactive libraries etc. etc.
3….but don’t forget the individuals!
There has been a gratifying increase in attention on organisational capacity strengthening in recent years. But occasionally this has given individual capacity building schemes – particularly ones which remove participants from their home institutions – a bad name. Don’t get me wrong – my ideal situation would be that we have world-class higher education institutions in developing countries so that future talent can be nurtured there. But while we are getting there, we don’t want to lose the potential  of lots of talented young people who are seeking an excellent education. Plus, the strengthened organisations of tomorrow are going to need well-educated people to staff them. For this reason, my personal view is that well-targeted individual scholarship schemes which enable talented young people to study at a world-class university and ensure that their new-found skills benefit their own country can be a useful part of efforts to strengthen higher education.
4. Figure out links between research and higher education agendas – and avoid turf wars.
Some projects which are funded as ‘research capacity building’ could equally be described as higher education programmes – and vice versa. I am completely comfortable about this so long as the people funding each talk to each other. The two agendas are so intrinsically linked – and there is no lack of work to do – so I hope we can agree to work together on this one.

I am really looking forward to the discussions on higher education over the next few months – and in particular to hearing the findings of DFID’s Task Force. However it will be important that we don’t let the excitement about higher education distract us from the really pressing needs in other areas of education. As I have discussed before, the state of primary and secondary education remains abysmal in far too many parts of the world – and we will need to focus on all sectors of education if we are to achieve the vision set out in the High-Level Panel report.


4 thoughts on “Higher Education – my two (well, actually four) cents

  1. DLP has a really interesting case study coming out soon that looks at the contribution of higher education to the creation of developmental leaders in Ghana. The research, which was done by CfBT and CDD-Ghana, shows that education at secondary and tertiary levels was an essential factor in creating a set of leaders who worked together to push forward important democratic and economic reforms that have been sustained over time. It definitely doesn’t suggest that a university degree = good leadership (there are lots and lots of examples, all over the world, of leaders with degrees who are venal and incompetent!), but that when it does emerge, HE looks like an important part of the story.
    Among many things it raises some trade-offs to consider when thinking about MOOCs, and distance learning in general, and the value of face-to-face education. We’re in the middle of commissioning additional case studies in order to build up an evidence base around this and are also going to put out a methodology paper in case other people want to do similar research. Watch this space…!

  2. will do. Just doing final peer review now (literally…).

  3. Pingback: Sarah Phillips explores Somaliland’s approach to peacebuilding and asks if donors have overlooked the importance of secondary education in development. | Somaliland Guardian

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