Times Higher Education Supplement
March 10 2000
Educated people are no luxury, theyre essential
The World Bank has underlined the role of higher education in rescuing
the third world, say Mamphela Ramphele and Henry Rosovsky.
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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
Rs 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 worlds 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 markets 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 states 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
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 reports launch, Wolfensohn asked why we need such
document when what is being said is absolutely straightforward.
We need it, he said, because weve forgotten
it, because we dont 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 Harvards
faculty of arts and sciences, were co-chairs of the Task Force on
Higher Education and Society.