Times Higher Education Supplement
March 10 2000


Educated people are no luxury, they’re essential

The World Bank has underlined the role of higher education in rescuing the third world, say Mamphela Ramphele and Henry Rosovsky.

View Scanned Image (size 305KB)

The Times Higher Education Supplement

Last week, World Bank President James Wolfensohn marked a sea change in thinking about higher education in the developing world, endorsing the final report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society, on which we were fortunate to serve as co-chairs.

Mr Wolfensohn committed the World Bank to re-doubling its efforts to support higher education, sending an important signal to the rest of the development community. “It is impossible,” he said, “to have a system that functions without an appropriate and deep commitment to higher education.”

Education is vital to the prospects of developing countries. The poor, by definition, have very few resources. First rate education and health care are vital investments in the assets they do control: their own labour, enterprise, and ingenuity. Educated, healthy people do not need to be rescued from poverty. They rescue themselves.

But the stakes are rising. The knowledge economy demands highly specialized skills. It also moves faster. People must now learn how to learn or they will be left behind. Primary and secondary schools aim to provide students with a strong grounding in the 3 R’s and other vital skills, but higher education offers the depth and flexibility needed to thrive in the modern workplace. It also promotes human development by enhancing the life of the mind and creates the freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake.

The case for higher education in developing countries may seem straightforward, but it has traditionally been contentious. Development orthodoxy holds that investment in basic education yields higher returns than money spent further up the system. Higher education is thus a luxury, runs the argument, which developing countries cannot currently afford.

If this argument was ever true, it is no longer. The issue is not primary and secondary education versus higher education, but rather achieving the right mix among the three levels. As leaders, entrepreneurs, and administrators, highly educated people are enormously important to social and economic development. Investment in higher education is thus strongly in the public interest. Sustainable poverty reduction will not be achieved without a renaissance in developing country higher education systems.

We are not talking about systems that concentrate exclusively on professional training, either. We argue that some of the most promising students should receive a first class general education. To overcome their serious problems, developing countries need to liberally apply a vital resource – brainpower, not money.

Ultimately, this concerns helping some of the world’s fledgling democracies to thrive. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, democracy matters most to the poorest. No famine has ever occurred (or been allowed to happen) in a society where leaders must listen to their citizens.

The problems of the developing world are indeed serious. Demand is rising fast, but higher education systems are expanding chaotically. Low-quality institutions mushroom in the private sector, while public sector provision suffers from under-funding, lack of vision, poor management, and low morale.

The solution demands a holistic approach and a strategic vision of what can be achieved. We advocate “planned diversity” as a third way between central planning and chaotic expansion. Both public and private sectors must be involved, in a system that uses the market’s energy, but recognises the areas where the market cannot deliver: most notably in the areas of basic science, the humanities, and access for the disadvantaged.

We see the state’s most important role as a guarantor of standards. If talented, but poor, individuals are denied access by the system, then the state must intervene. It must also fight to improve the current lamentable standards of governance in many countries and to boost capacity in the vital areas of science and technology. When resources are limited, they must be spent well, not wasted by demoralised faculty, teaching out-of-date curricula to poorly motivated students.

Institutions should specialise. Research universities remain important in all but the smallest and poorest countries. But other institutions should not be treated as poor cousins. Centres of excellence can be developed throughout the system – not simply reserved for an educational elite. Distance learning provides the most exciting challenge to the status quo, especially as it becomes clear that many remote parts of the world will have Internet access long before they enjoy decent roads.

The Task Force, which brought together 14 educational experts from 13 countries, aims to start a debate, not to answer all the questions. We firmly believe that rapid progress can be made, but only with political will, new resources, and people prepared to contemplate and develop imaginative solutions.

At the report’s launch, Wolfensohn asked why we need such document when what is being said is absolutely straightforward. “We need it,” he said, “because we’ve forgotten it, because we don’t give higher education the weighting that is required.” We wholeheartedly agree.


Mamphela Ramphele, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and Managing Director Designate of The World Bank and Henry Rosovsky professor emeritus at Harvard University and former Dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences, were co-chairs of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society.