"Today, more than ever before in human history,
the wealth or poverty of nations depends on the quality
higher education. Those with a larger repertoire of skills and a
greater capacity for learning can look
forward to lifetimes of unprecedented economic fulfilment. But in
the coming decades the poorly
educated face little better than the dreary prospects of lives of
Malcolm Gillis, President of Rice University,
12 February 1999
Today, global wealth is concentrated less and less
in factories, land, tools and machinery. The knowledge, skills and
resourcefulness of people are increasingly critical to the world
economy. Human capital in the USA is now estimated to be at least
three times more important than physical capital. A century ago,
this would not have been the case.
The developed world is reacting quickly, with education
a major political priority. High-quality human capital is developed
in high-quality education systems, with tertiary education providing
the advanced skills commanding a premium in todays workplace.
Most developed countries have seen a substantial rise in the proportion
of their young people receiving higher education. Lifelong learning
is also being used to help workers adjust to rapidly changing economies.
And what about developing countries?
Will they be able to compete in the knowledge economy? Or do they
face a future of increasing exclusion, unable to develop the skills
required for the 21st century. The challenge is well understood
by most in the developing world. President Benjamin W. Mkapa of
Tanzania, for example, is concerned that higher education in Africa
is becoming increasingly obsolete. Our universities,
he says, must produce men and women willing to fight an intellectual
battle for self-confidence and self-assertion as equal players in
the emerging globalized world.
In answer to these concerns, this report asks the
following three questions:
- What is the role of higher education in supporting and enhancing
the process of economic and social development?
- What are the major obstacles that higher education faces in
- How can these obstacles best be overcome?
Some readers will be surprised that we spend this
time rehearsing arguments for the importance of higher education.
After all, education is associated with better skills, higher productivity,
and enhanced human capacity to improve the quality of life. Education
at all levels is needed if economies are to climb from subsistence
farming, through an economy based on manufacturing, to participation
in the global knowledge economy.
During the past two or three decades, however, attention
has focused on primary education, especially for girls. This has
led to a neglect of secondary and tertiary education, with higher
education in a perilous state in many, if not most, developing countries.
With a few notable exceptions, it is under-funded by governments
and donors. As a result, quality is low and often deteriorating,
while access remains limited. Higher education institutions (and
whole systems) are politicized, poorly regulated and sometimes corrupt.
We believe that a more balanced approach to education
at all levels is needed. The focus on primary education is important,
but an approach that pursues primary education alone will leave
societies dangerously unprepared for survival in tomorrows
Within a few decades of the end of World War II, the
major colonial empires had disintegrated. Initially, newly independent
countries, and poorer countries more generally, looked to their
higher education systems to deliver support for national efforts
to raise standards of living and alleviate poverty. They also attempted
to widen access to higher education and, in some cases, there was
a belief that higher education could help make societies more democratic,
while strengthening human rights.
No country can claim complete success in achieving
these traditional nation-building goals, but some progress
has been made on all three fronts. Since the 1960s, higher education
has been forced to confront what we refer to as the new realities:
expansion, differentiation and the knowledge revolution. These are
changing higher education and the environment in which it exists.
All are now powerful influences in developing countries, challenging
policy-makers to look afresh at their higher education system and
think creatively about what it can achieve.
Expansion is a result of the tremendous increase in
the number of students. In the 1940s and 1950s, higher education
in developing countries was characterized by few students and graduates,
with the students frequently in training for either the (colonial)
civil service or a few professions. Today, however, there has been
a dramatic shift from class to mass, with half the worlds
higher education students living in a developing country. As more
and more children complete their primary and secondary education,
many wish to continue to gain a degree. Developing countries have
also seen real incomes rising, bringing further education within
the reach of an increasing number of families.
Expansion has had a variety of consequences. Existing
institutions have grown in size, transforming themselves into mega-universities,
while traditional institutions have been replicated by public or
private means. A more creative response has also been seen. Differentiation
is a process whereby new types of institutions are born and new
providers enter the sector. Developing countries now have a tremendous
variety of colleges and universities, instead of the small number
of homogeneous institutions existing 50 years ago. Private institutions
have joined public ones,
while a range of vocational and professional schools now complement
the traditional universities.
Expansion has caused the average quality of education
to decline in many countries as resources are stretched increasingly
thin. Developing countries now need to clarify the national benefit
they receive from education systems and to explore the results a
differentiated (and usually unplanned) system is delivering. Private
institutions are currently growing most quickly, and there is an
especially urgent need to explore what the private sector can and
cannot deliver. Policy-makers can then plan for the orderly development
of a higher education system; establish mechanisms to maintain quality;
and, most importantly, nurture areas for which private funds are
unlikely to be available. These include basic scientific research,
support for the humanities, and scholarship support to increase
access for under-represented groups.
The Knowledge Revolution
We live in a period of major structural change. The classic industrial
revolution that started in the UK at the end of the 18th century
spread gradually and unevenly to Europe and beyond. By the end of
the 20th century, a number of so-called follower countries had joined
the ranks of industrial nations, and today industrial countries
are found throughout the world. Some have narrowed, and even closed,
the gap between rich and the poor, with the East Asian countries
being a good example. Average incomes have tended to increase across
the world (except in sub-Saharan Africa) in the past 20 years, although
one quarter of the worlds population still lives in abject
In a predominantly industrial economy, the economic processes involved
in catch-up are well understood. Levels of agricultural and manufacturing
productivity must be raised by combining imported technology from
advanced countries with relatively cheap labor, and by moving labor
from low to high productivity sectors. In this classical pattern
of development, an educated (and healthy) labor force is a great
advantage, but the emphasis is on basic literacy and numeracy skills,
and the capacity to learn new tasks.
This pattern is still valid, but the late 20th century saw the
growth of a knowledge-centered, as opposed to a manufacturing-centered,
economy. The knowledge revolution has seen exponential
and continuing increases in knowledge in advanced countries since
World War II. Many indicators confirm this, including the number
of new patents, databases, and journals, as well as research and
development expenditures. Nearly all industries have been affected,
from biotechnology to financial services, with the nature of economic
growth changing since tinkerers and craftsmen guided
the early technology of the industrial revolution. Systematic knowledge
has gradually replaced experience in furthering technology, with
sophisticated and theoretical knowledge now the predominant path
for technical progress. The world's Silicon Valleys are pushing
the technological envelope; they are doing so by building on a thorough
understanding of the underlying science.
Advances in information technology, meanwhile, have made this ever-increasing
volume of knowledge more accessible, effective and powerful. Networked
computers and new forms of telecommunications spread information
around the world with dazzling speed. The Internet, in particular,
means that more knowledge than ever is in circulation. Those who
have the skills to use it have access to an extraordinarily valuable
(and sustainable) resource.
Participation in the knowledge economy requires a new set of human
skills. People need higher qualifications and to be capable of greater
intellectual independence. They must be flexible and be able to
continue learning well beyond the traditional age for schooling.
Without improved human capital, countries will inevitably fall behind
and experience intellectual and economic marginalization and isolation.
The result will be continuing, if not rising, poverty.
As Knowledge for Development, the 199899 World Development
Report, puts it: Knowledge is like light. Weightless and intangible,
it can easily travel the world, enlightening the lives of people
everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the darkness of
poverty unnecessarily. In part, at least, people live
in poverty because they cannot reach the switch to turn on the light,
and that switch is called education. Higher education has never
been as important to the future of the developing world as it is
right now. It cannot guarantee rapid economic development
but sustained progress is impossible without it.
As the World Bank recognizes, the further developing countries
fall behind, the more difficulties they face. They are, it says,
pursuing a moving target, as the high-income countries constantly
push the knowledge frontier outward and pull away from the rest.
At one time the rich countries might have viewed this future with
indifference, confident that they were insulated from third world
misery. Today, with memories fresh of the contagion that accompanied
the first global financial crisis, misery has become an infectious
Into the heart of the matter the
travails of higher education
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Like most developing countries, the DRC faces powerful pressures
to expand its higher education sector. After achieving independence
from Belgium in 1960, what is now the third largest African
country, with a current population of 47 million, had only
two universities, both established in the mid-1950s. Their
combined enrollment was around 2000 students. Five years later,
in 1965, enrollment in higher education as a proportion
of the number of people at the ages most relevant to higher
education had still barely moved above zero (as compared
with the 4 per cent average of both Asia and Latin America).
Both the government and private organizations have attempted
to address the growing demand. The government established
several pedagogical institutes designed to produce secondary
school teachers. Continuing pressure for access to higher
education has also led to the establishment of several private
3-year institutes, as well as a few private universities offering,
between them, degrees in medicine, the sciences, economics,
international relations, law, politics, communications, humanities
Despite these initiatives, demand continues to outstrip capacity.
Acute shortages are evident in technology, the sciences, and
medicine fields in which training is particularly expensive
to provide. The number of requests for enrollment in these
fields is so high that during the academic year 199596,
at the Public University of Kinshasa, nearly 2500 freshmen
packed a single class in biomedical sciences. And students
are right to seek to become physicians, given that the DRC
has only one doctor for every 14 000 inhabitants. By 1995
the country continued to have an extremely low proportion
of its population enrolled in higher education, compared to
other developing countries. Moreover, most of the new schools
replicate each other, and programs in medicine, technology,
or specialized education remain rare.
The DRC, like many developing countries, faces the challenge
of responding to increasing demand while attempting to provide
a quality education. The current situation is extremely difficult.
Most universities, public and private, lack the necessary
funds to provide basic educational infrastructure sufficiently
spacious classrooms, laboratories, equipped teaching hospitals,
libraries, computers, and Internet access. In general, students
have no textbooks, and professors must dictate their notes
or copy them onto a blackboard. The majority of schools have
no library, no telephone, and not a single computer that students
Schools in the DRC share a number of serious problems. The
DRC as a whole lacks sufficient resources to provide adequate
support to faculty. Many professors therefore choose either
to teach at several universities to make ends meet, to move
to corporations, or simply to relocate to a developed country
for higher pay. Several factors help to foment corruption
and undermine professors willingness to evaluate students
even-handedly, including low pay for faculty, and salary payment
delays lasting several months. The current evaluation system
is highly subjective and leaves students at the mercy of professors
who themselves often need to be evaluated.
Another critical issue is the shortage of faculty with graduate-level
training. Most faculty are trained in overseas universities.
The current scarcity of government resources and international
scholarships for overseas universities makes it difficult
to plan any significant training of future faculty to expand
higher education. A plausible solution might begin with the
establishment of a few graduate schools, in a variety of disciplines,
through cooperation with international universities and foreign
Another problem with higher education in the DRC is that
it is rarely possible to study part-time. In the current official
system, all students are registered for full-time attendance.
Failing to pass any course automatically cancels all grades
obtained that year, even for courses that a student has passed.
This practice discourages working people from improving their
skills and contributing to the nation's development. A rare
exception is the American University of Kinshasa (Université
Franco-Américaine de Kinshasa), a private university
that since 1994 has pioneered a credit-based system that also
allows students to program their courses around a work schedule.
Public universities in the DRC also need the restoration
of managerial and financial autonomy (which they lost in 1972).
Autonomy could promote quality education by stimulating competition,
as was formerly the case between Université Lovanium,
Université Officielle du Congo, and Université
Libre de Kisangani. Government will still need to play an
active role, overseeing the system and setting policies, standards,
and regulations. In summary, the DRC is a textbook example
of systematic problems that are fundamentally undermining
the countrys ability to capture the benefits of higher
Higher education is about more than teaching students relevant
skills. Theoretical and applied knowledge in a multitude of fields
is created in universities, which also teach people how to access
and use the worlds knowledge. Developing countries need strong
universities to carry out their own research, but also to select
and absorb knowledge from all over the world. Undoubtedly other
green revolutions will take place, and they are likely
to be ever more complicated and knowledge-intensive in their nature
and application. Given the international setting of higher education
the worldwide community of scholars, study and training,
and research reaching across borders universities are ideally
suited for the tasks of selection and absorption of knowledge.
The new realities do not supersede the traditional goals of higher
education. Indeed, there are many overlaps. Democracy, for instance,
has spread at the same time as the knowledge revolution has gathered
pace. It is founded both on well understood and widely practiced
standards of civic virtue, and on the knowledge that allows widespread
participation in the running of a society, values that can be examined
and propagated in higher education institutions more effectively
than they are now.
Taken together, the new realities and traditional goals provide
a powerful public-interest argument for developing higher education.
The Task Force believes that social returns to investment are substantial
and exceed private returns by a wider margin than previously believed.
Structure of the Report
Peril and Promise: Higher Education in Developing Countries
is aimed at five key audiences:
- higher education policy-makers, including education ministers,
members of governing boards, and others, who need to understand
the special needs and opportunities that higher education faces
in the new century.
- the wider political community, especially ministers of the
economy and ministers of industry, as well as business leaders
whose support is vital to enabling higher education to reach its
- higher education professionals, such as presidents, rectors,
vice-chancellors, deans, and professors who are responsible for
enacting reforms and creating institutions that provide a high-quality
and efficient service.
- lenders and donors, who must decide how they can best support
the enhancement of higher education in the developing countries.
- the general public (including students), whose understanding
and support is absolutely necessary given the quantity of public
and private resources that higher education consumes.
The report helps guide these audiences through the older problems
and new realities that higher education faces. It avoids treating
in detail topics that have been fully and frequently examined by
others, such as financing and the use of new technologies in education,
and concentrates instead on areas that have received little consideration,
and especially those that reflect new pressures on the system. Expansion,
differentiation, and the knowledge revolution are discussed in detail,
as are neglected topics of considerable current importance, such
as the governance of higher education, the need to consider higher
education as a system, and an examination of the public interest
in higher education. We also include substantial discussions on
improving science and technology research and instruction in institutions
of higher education, and on the nature and importance of general
The report proceeds by reasoned argument, relying heavily on experience
and belief. Some empirical support is provided from case studies
and statistical analysis, although further data analysis would certainly
be useful. Each chapter directs attention to a major issue in higher
education, starting a dialogue from which we hope more specific
policy recommendations will emerge. We have not attempted comprehensive
studies of individual countries, or even of specific continents,
but have instead addressed problems that affect many countries,
cultures, histories and traditions. We hope that each developing
country (and each higher education institution) will find fresh
insights in our work and translate them into new ways of
working in their own context.
"Developing country" is not a precise term though
over 80 per cent of the worlds population lives in a developing
country, as conventionally defined by the World Bank on the basis
of income per capita. Our overview includes Africa, much of Asia,
nearly all of Latin America, and large parts of the former Soviet
Union. Clearly, the developing world exhibits tremendous variation
culturally, politically, socially, and economically. However, we
are confident that general principles exist and have focused on
issues that arise most frequently, drawing conclusions that can
be applied in many different countries. Exceptions do exist of course,
and some readers will feel that certain points do not apply in their
country. We hope this reaction will be rare.
The terms 'public' and 'private' are frequently used in this report
to describe institutions of higher education. 'Private', in particular,
requires cautious application. Some private schools are philanthropic
entities and are not for profit. Generating surpluses is not the
dominant motive of these organizations, and in that sense they resemble
On financing see, for example, D. Bruce Johnstone, The Financing
and Management of Higher Education: A Status Report on Worldwide
Reforms, a paper supported by the World Bank in connection with
the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, Paris, October
59, 1998; World Bank, Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience,
1994; and A. Ziderman and D. Albrecht, Financing Universities in
Developing Countries, Washington, D.C./London: The Falmer Press,
1995. On technology see, for example, John S. Daniel, Mega-Universities
and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education,
London: Kogan Page, 1996; and World Bank, World Development Report:
Knowledge for Development, 199899, Rome: The World Bank, 1999.