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.


Post 2015 high-level panel report

So I have just managed to read through the recently published report from the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons* in which they give their views on the post 2015 agenda. I found it a really good, and inspiring read. Of course it’s easy to be cynical about these kind of reports and say that they will make no difference but I think we should welcome the fact that some fairly important and powerful people have been seriously thinking about what we mean by development and how we might achieve it. And I think they have been much more visionary than some expected.

In case you don’t have time to read it, the panel suggest ‘five big transformative shifts’ which are, in summary:

  1. Properly tackle inequality
  2. Embed environmental sustainability in development
  3. Drive economic transformation
  4. Support effective institutions
  5. Build a new global partnership

The report also provides a list of ‘illustrative’ goals which they seem to be setting forward as a starting point for discussions (although, as argued here, this probably won’t stop everyone and their dog jumping in to complain that their pet issue is not included in them!).

So, I thought I would give a quick summary of three things I particularly loved, and two minor quibbles I have with the report.

Stuff I loved

1. It is great that the panel highlights that developed countries have a major responsibility to act – both by reducing their impact on the environments and by taking a serious look at how their systems (or lack thereof) might be contributing to poverty and corruption. People from developing countries are rightly tired of being criticised by politicians from rich countries which are destroying the global environment and benefitting from corrupt businesses. I am therefore really pleased to see the call for developed countries to ‘get their house in order’.

2. I am delighted that the ‘illustrative’ goal on education includes quality (as well as quantity). As I discussed in my last post, we need to go beyond getting ‘bums on seats’ and instead think about how to improve the amount is actually learnt.

3. I really welcome the increased focus on governance and institutions in the report and was particularly pleased that the authors highlight that achieving fair and inclusive societies is an aim in itself – as well as a route to achieving poverty reduction. Of course, we all realise that achieving this is very difficult but at least by putting it at the forefront of their recommendations, the panel have managed to respond to one of the major criticisms of the millenium development goals.

A couple of criticisms

1. There is a section on the importance of science and technology but I felt it adopted the rather hackneyed narrative that investment in science and technology will automatically lead to economic growth. I have argued before that, while I do support investment in research, we need to think a bit more carefully about how we expect that investment to contribute to society rather than just assuming that it will lead to some magical technological fix.

2. As I mentioned above, it is really wonderful to see an emphasis on quality of education – but it only mentions primary and secondary education. Surely, if we want countries to have the human capital they will need to pull themselves out of poverty we will also need to have high quality tertiary education?

So, those are my initial thoughts – I am really impressed by what they have achieved and think it is a good and inspiring read. There are a few aspects that I am particularly happy to see – and just a couple of parts where I would have liked a slightly more nuanced approach. But what do others think? I am really interested to hear your thoughts.


Me, auditioning for the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on drinking wine and eating cheesecake... I'm just waiting for their call...

Me, auditioning for the ‘High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on Drinking Wine and Eating Cheesecake’… I’m just waiting for their call…


*This, incidentally, is a fabulous name for a committee and I think my new aim in life is to be on a ‘High-level Panel of Eminent Persons’. I am less sure about what I should be eminent in (can one be eminent in something or do you just become generally eminent?)…