A systemic, common and long term vision for higher education reform

Recent studies have illustrated that higher education (HE) is distinctively positioned to make a positive contribution to national economies and societies in the context of the 21st Century global knowledge economy. It is now high on the post 2015 development agenda for national governments and the international development community alike. It is included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, under target 4.3 which states that by 2030, equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university will be ensured.

This new attitude comes after decades of relative neglect which saw only around 2.7% of the overall 2002-2013 international development budget invested in the growth of HE in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).  This lack of investment led to the degradation and decimation of HE systems and many developing countries are now faced with little HE infrastructure, weak capacity and without the intellectual capital required for poverty reduction and sustainable development. These challenges have been compounded by recent global trends such as massification and internationalisation, which have impacted HE. Mass enrolment has created a demand for expanded facilities and more qualified staff. It has also resulted in a more diverse student body with different needs and expectations. Expansion in demand has created the need for new providers. System growth requires additional funding and channels for obtaining it and effective management and governance.  All of this expansion and diversification has generated greater concerns for quality. To meet these new challenges and deliver on the demands HE has been assigned, multiple sectoral and institutional reforms are required.

Not only do these reforms require massive expansion and restructuring of HE systems but also of primary and secondary education.  HE can no longer be considered in isolation from the lower levels of the education system and likewise the lower levels of the education system cannot be considered in isolation from HE as in the past. Effective learning and equitable access in HE are dependent on the foundations laid at primary and secondary levels, and the quality of schooling depends on effective HE.  That is why it is called a system. What is required is a systemic view of education with strong holistic support to all levels.

Addressing all of these areas simultaneously is a significant undertaking for governments in LMICs, but they are not alone in this endeavour. Multilateral and bilateral donors can complement the efforts of national governments in LMICs. They can provide funding and educational resources, train senior HE staff on education management techniques, governance and administration support or curricula development. Fortunately, most international agencies (including the World Bank) have now realised that it is not a wise course of action to overlook HE and have stated their commitment to supporting it. But while there appears to be a common appreciation of the need for HE growth in LMICs there appears to be less consensus on what the investment priorities should be and donor trends reflect different approaches. International HE aid is too often utilised at the institutional level to support selected faculties, centres or areas within a department, rather than at the systems level. What is really needed is a common approach and donor coherence. Perhaps what is really required is something similar to the Education For All declaration which gave expression to the consensus of the international community to the importance of basic education and triggered an annual peer review process and resulted in commendable progress.

Although most donors agree that it is necessary to invest in and reform HE in order to unleash its development potential, doing so raises many questions about how to do it whilst at the same time minimising the effects of brain drain, elite capture, the costs of HE and disconnections from society that characterised many HE systems in the past and were – successfully – used to justify a lack of investment. It is true that these issues are complex and are not easily reconciled but it takes time.  Investments in HE will ultimately pay off and the positive benefits will outweigh or even eliminate the negative ones. For example, providing good quality domestic undergraduate and postgraduate education is one way to alleviate the brain drain as it will mean that going abroad is an option and not the only way to get a good quality degree. What is needed is a bold and long term vision where governments and development agencies work together to formulate the most effective policies for enhancing their potential.

What is clear is that there is a lot of work ahead if HE is to ultimately deliver on the demands laid at its door of ensuring a highly skilled workforce, a well-informed and democratic populace, sustained economic growth, and sufficient technological innovation to solve global problems such as poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. Developing a systemic, common and bold long term vision seems to be a good place to start.

By Lorna Power, Senior International Advisor on International Development and Education – CfBT Education Trust

For more information on this topic, please see the Higher Education Topic Guide

Join in the conversation on twitter using the hashtag #HigherEd4dev