Peril and Promise: Higher Education in Developing
Summary of findings by the Task Force on Higher
Education and Society
1 March, 2000
The Task Force
The Task Force on Higher Education and Society was
convened by the World Bank and UNESCO. It brought together education
experts from 13 countries to explore the future of higher education
in the developing world.
Over the past 18 months, it has conducted research
and held an intensive series of discussions and hearings, and has
concluded that without more and better higher education, developing
countries will find it increasingly difficult to benefit from the
global knowledge-based economy.
The Task Force aims to clarify the arguments for higher
education development, especially from the standpoint of public
policy-makers and the international community. It also diagnoses
specific problems that are common across the developing world home
to over 80 per cent of the worlds population and suggests
potential solutions. It hopes to catalyze an informed dialogue which
will guide action tailored to each countrys needs. It offers
a starting point for higher education reform, not a universal blueprint
for how that reform should be carried out.
The world economy is changing as knowledge supplants
physical capital as the source of present (and future) wealth. Technology
is driving much of this process, with information technology, biotechnology
and other innovations leading to remarkable changes in the way we
live and work.
As knowledge becomes more important, so does higher
education. Countries need to educate more of their young people
to a higher standard a degree is now a basic qualification for many
skilled jobs. The quality of knowledge generated within higher education
institutions, and its accessibility to the wider economy, is becoming
increasingly critical to national competitiveness.
This poses an especially serious challenge to the
developing world. Since the 1980s, many national governments and
international donors have assigned higher education a relatively
low priority. Narrow and, in our view, misleading economic analysis
has contributed to the view that public investment in universities
and colleges brings meager returns compared to investment in primary
and secondary schools, and that higher education magnifies income
As a result, developing countries higher education
systems are under great strain. They are chronically under-funded,
but face escalating demand.
Faculties are often under-qualified, poorly motivated, and poorly
rewarded. Students are badly taught and curricula under-developed.
Developed countries, meanwhile, are constantly raising the stakes.
Quite simply, many developing countries will need to work much harder
just to maintain their position, let alone to catch up. There are
notable exceptions, but currently, across most of the developing
world, the potential of higher education to promote development
is being realized only marginally.
The Task Force is united in the belief that urgent
action to expand the quantity and improve the quality of higher
education in developing countries should be a top development priority.
Developing countries need higher education to:
provide increasing numbers of students, especially those from disadvantaged
backgrounds, with specialized skills.
Specialists are increasingly in demand in all sectors
of the world economy produce a body of students with a general education
that encourages flexibility and innovation allowing the continual
renewal of economic and social structures relevant to a fast-changing
world teach students not just what is known now, but also how to
keep their knowledge up-to-date, so that they are able to refresh
their skills as the economic environment changes increase the amount
and quality of in-country research allowing the developing world
to select, absorb, and create new knowledge more efficiently and
rapidly than is currently the case.
The Task Force recognizes that there are many difficulties
in achieving these aims, including the many competing demands for
public money. Action, therefore, will need creativity and persistence.
A new vision of what higher education can achieve is needed, combined
with better planning and higher standards of management. The strengths
of all players public and private must be used, with the international
community at last emerging to provide strong and coordinated support
and leadership in this critical area.
The Task Force recommends that each developing country
should make it a national priority to debate and determine what
it can realistically expect its higher education system to deliver.
The debate must be informed by historical and comparative knowledge
about the contribution of higher education to social, economic,
and political development but also should take clear account of
the challenges the future will bring. It should establish for each
higher education system clear goals which policy-makers can use
to view the higher education system as a whole, determining what
each part can contribute to the public good.
This kind of holistic analysis of higher education
systems has rarely been attempted. It does not mean reverting to
centrally planned systems far from it. Instead, it offers the ability
to balance strategic direction with the diversity now found in higher
education systems across the developing world. This diversification
a reaction to increased demand has brought new players (especially
from the private sector) into the system and encouraged new types
of institutions to emerge. It has brought new ideas and energy into
the system and offered alternative sources of funding. It promises
increased competition and, ultimately, improved quality.
However, this promise will not be delivered if diversification
continues to be chaotic and unplanned. Players new and old will
thrive only in higher education systems that develop core qualities.
These include:sufficient autonomy, with governments providing clear
supervision, but not day-to-day management, explicit stratification,
allowing institutions to play to their strengths and serve different
needs, while competing for funding, faculty, and students cooperation
as well as competition, with human and physical capital, as well
as knowledge and ideas, profitably shared within the system, creating,
for example, a learning commons where facilities computers,
libraries, laboratories are open to any and all studentsincreased
openness, encouraging higher education institutions to develop knowledge-
(and revenue-) sharing links with business and to deepen the dialogue
with society that will lead to stronger democracy and more resilient
On its own, the market will certainly not devise this
kind of system. Markets require profit and this can crowd out important
educational duties and opportunities. Basic sciences and the humanities,
for example, are essential for national development. They are likely
to be under-provided, unless actively encouraged by leaders in education
who have the resources to realize their vision.
Governments need to develop a new role as supervisors
of higher education, rather than directors. They should concentrate
on establishing the parameters within which success can be achieved,
while allowing specific solutions to emerge from the creativity
of higher education professionals.
The Task Force has identified a number of areas where
immediate, practical action is needed. These include:
it suggests a mixed funding model to maximize the financial input
of the private sector, philanthropic individuals and institutions,
and students. It also calls for more consistent and productive
public funding mechanisms.
- resources it makes practical suggestions for the more
effective use of physical and human capital, including an urgent
plea for access to the new technologies needed to connect developing
countries to the global intellectual mainstream
- governance (acknowledged by many as the problem facing
higher education in developing countries) the Task Force proposes
a set of principles of good governance and discusses tools that
promote their implementation: better management will lead to the
more effective deployment of limited resources
- curriculum development, especially in two contrasting
areas, science and technology, and general education;
the Task Force believes that, in the knowledge economy, highly
trained specialists and broadly educated generalists will be at
a premium, and both will need to be educated more flexibly so
that they continue to learn as their environment develops.
The Task Force will launch its report in February
2000, with chapters covering: higher educations long-standing
problems and the new realities it faces; the nature of the public
interest in higher education; how a focus on higher education systems
will yield the benefits of planned diversification; the need to
improve standards of governance; the particularly acute need for
better science and technology education; and a radical call for
imaginative general education curricula to be introduced for certain
The report is aimed for wide distribution to the worlds
policy-makers. It continually underscores the central point: that
higher education is no longer a luxury, it is essential to survival.
The Task Force report is launched on 1 March 2000, at the World
Bank in Washington DC, as part of Human Development Week.
Task Force members were: Mamphela Ramphele (South Africa) Co-Chair,
Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town; Henry Rosovsky (United
States) Co-Chair, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
and Geyser University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University; Kenneth
Prewitt (United States) Vice-Chair, Director, US Census; Babar Ali
(Pakistan) Pro-Chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences;
Hanan Ashrawi (Palestine) Former Minister for Higher Education;
José Joaquin Brunner (Chile) Former Minister Secretary General;
Lone Dybkjaer (Denmark) Member, European Parliament; José
Goldemberg (Brazil) Professor, University of São Paulo; Georges
Haddad (France) Professor, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne;
Motoo Kaji (Japan) Vice-President, University of the Air; Jajah
Koswara (Indonesia) Director, Research and Community Service Development,
Directorate General of Higher Education; Narciso Matos (Mozambique)
Secretary-General, Association of African Universities; Manmohan
Singh (India) Member of Parliament; and Carl Tham (Sweden) Former
Minister of Education and Science. Study Co-directors were Kamal
Ahmad (United States), Attorney, Fried, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson;
and David Bloom (United States) Head of Task Force Secretariat and
Professor, Harvard University.
In brief, economists have tended to measure only increases in earnings,
rather than the contribution that highly-educated people make as
economic and social entrepreneurs, leaders and representatives of
their countries on the world stage.
By 2000, 50% of the worlds higher education students will
live in the developing world.
It should be noted that developing country governments already spend
a greater proportion of their income on higher education than the
industrial countries, so dramatic increases in public funds are
not likely to be forthcoming.
Industrial countries currently have at least 20 times as many computers
as the developing world and 100 times as many internet hosts. Technology,
meanwhile, has great potential to enable better education by providing
first-rate materials, facilitating distance learning, and helping
developing country academics keep up with developments in their
General education aims to develop the whole individual, beyond specific
occupational training. Specific subjects would vary from country
to country, but would include a mixture of the humanities and the
social and natural sciences.