Research focusing on the links between education, development and social change has a long history; this includes research on higher education investment in low-income countries by external and international development agencies. Analysis of the impact on society of higher education in developing countries emerged alongside post-colonial discourses and modernisation theories. Research generally focused on how higher education could be utilised by governments to train people in the skills necessary for economic growth.
Key findings of evidence and gaps include:
- Trends and prioritisation: In the pre-independence and immediate post-independence period, higher education was prioritised by national governments and international donors. Analysis of official development assistance shows that there was a significant drop in investment in higher education during the 1990s by both multilateral and bilateral donors, with the prioritisation of basic education. However, over the last decade, there has been a greater prioritisation of higher education by donors as the wider benefits of higher education for development are recognised.
- Partnerships: Evidence shows that partnerships of many kinds can improve the quality of higher education and donors can be instrumental in financing them. Successful partnerships require sustainable financing, good monitoring and evaluation, and understanding and overcoming cultural differences. More research is needed on why teaching and learning partnerships are slow to develop.
- The role of universities for development: Universities provide measurable benefits to graduates in areas such as health, gender equality and democracy. They also contribute to strengthening institutions and training professionals in other sectors, for example health and education. Many universities have moved towards massification and there has been dramatic growth in private sector provision of higher education.
- Linkages between higher education and development: A DFID rigorous literature review on the impact of tertiary education on development outlines outcomes in four areas: (i) increased productivity; (ii) technological transfer; (iii) improved capabilities; and (iv) improved institutions. There is evidence that higher education develops entrepreneurship, creates jobs and supports good economic and political governance.
- The geography and power of knowledge: Given that most higher education institutes are in urban areas, this creates a potential barrier for those living in rural areas to attend due to increased transport and accommodation costs. While admission to universities is largely meritocratic, education quality in rural areas is often lower due to lower levels of investment.
- Gender and diversity in higher education and research: In Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than seven women enrol in higher education for every ten men. Female leaders are underrepresented among the top 100 universities (most of them in high-income countries). In Sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of southern African countries, there is low female enrolment and a low proportion of female academic staff.
- Higher education and the SDGs: The main education goal is SDG 4 which is concerned with inclusive and equitable quality education. Evidence shows that females and students with disabilities are not fully represented in universities. Achievement of SDG 4 will require a key focus on those groups that are marginalised in accessing higher education.