Peril and Promise: Higher Education in Developing Countries

Summary of findings by the Task Force on Higher Education and Society[1]
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[2].

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 world’s population and suggests potential solutions. It hopes to catalyze an informed dialogue which will guide action tailored to each country’s needs. It offers a starting point for higher education reform, not a universal blueprint for how that reform should be carried out.

The Background

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[3] 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 inequality.

As a result, developing countries’ higher education systems are under great strain. They are chronically under-funded, but face escalating demand[4]. 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.

Wider Focus

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.

System Focus

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 nation states.

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.

Practical Solutions

The Task Force has identified a number of areas where immediate, practical action is needed. These include:

- funding[5] 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[6]

- 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[7]; 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 education’s 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 students.

The report is aimed for wide distribution to the world’s policy-makers. It continually underscores the central point: that higher education is no longer a luxury, it is essential to survival.


[1] The Task Force report is launched on 1 March 2000, at the World Bank in Washington DC, as part of Human Development Week.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] By 2000, 50% of the world’s higher education students will live in the developing world.

[5] 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.

[6] 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 field.

[7] 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.