Conference on Higher Education and its socio-political
22 March 2001, Tilburg
"Research development in the "South" in the era
of the internationalisation of the trade in educational services"
Centre of African Studies
& Faculty of Education
University of Edinburgh, Scotland
World-class university-based programmes of both basic and applied
research and of post-graduate education are the breeding grounds
for the mastery of science and technology. They are the key to sophisticated
consumption of mankind's exploding stock of knowledge. They are
a necessary condition for African escape from intellectual dependency.
Ironically, no African nation can afford to have such programmes
in the short run, yet none can afford not to have them in the long
run (World Bank 1986: 73)
One of the current challenges in many OECD countries is the so-called
internationalisation of higher education. Although some universities'
international mandates are very narrowly concerned with the recruitment
of 'international' students, the larger ambition of others is with
'making higher education (more) responsive to the requirements and
challenges related to the globalisation of societies, economy and
labour markets' (van der Wende 1997: 19). Implicit also in the use
of the term 'internationalisation' is the notion that the particular
university or university system has a truly global appeal, and can
draw on a world-wide student and teaching staff demand, whether
for access to its main national campuses or to its overseas branches
and various franchise schemes.
In the case of research, with which this paper is principally concerned,
there is a widespread aspiration to participate in the kind of 'world-class'
research which is mentioned by the World Bank above. What is not
clear is whether the increased global competitiveness (of which
the internationalisation of higher education is one manifestation)
will facilitate non-OECD countries becoming significant research
producers, or whether this intensified international trade in educational
services will actually serve to hinder the development of national
In seeking an answer to this challenge, some of the most recent
analysis produced by the World Bank on higher education will be
reviewed, including the publication from the Task Force on Higher
Education and Society - Higher education in developing countries:
peril and promise (Task Force 2000). At the same time, there is
the issue of whether the massive increase in the scale of knowledge
accumulation via ICTs and the internet can work to the advantage
of countries that aspire to become significant research producers,
or whether the present digital divide is set to widen.
One of the major conceptual problems in approaching research capacity
building in the developing world is that there are substantial differences
in human development and in educational performance across non-OECD
countries (just as there are within OECD countries. There is also
an important change over time to be considered in the case of many
Thus, it is sadly the case that the research promise of the 1960s
and 1970s of some of the great names in African higher education
- Ibadan, Legon, Makerere and Nairobi - looks very bleak in the
1990s and 2000s. Other countries which did not even have an institution
of higher education in the early 1980s have made extraordinarily
rapid progress in building the infrastructure for national research
capacity in just 15 years or less. In other situations again, e.g.
in the UK, a whole segment of higher education has been mandated
to aspire to being 'research-active' as the result of a change in
Research development in an era of global competition: peril or
What is the message from the Task Force on Higher Education and
Society when it comes to assessing whether these times are currently
propitious for research development ambitions? Is there a major
risk in seeking to build a degree of autonomous research capacity
in the "South" when a whole series of "Northern"
nations are aggressively analysing the scope for attracting a larger
market share of the world's potentially mobile students, including
the world's brightest students.
In brief the Task Force argues that despite notable exceptions
the majority of higher education institutions in developing countries
have severe deficiencies in high quality staff, committed, well-prepared
students, and sufficient resources (Task Force 2000: 23). The political
pressure to expand universities, in the face of massive private
demand, has taken place at the expense of research infrastructure,
maintenance of journal subscriptions, book purchases and scientific
supplies. In particular, the fall in the value of academic salaries
has meant that the search for additional sources of income, through
external teaching, tuition and consultancy has been privileged in
many countries over the obligations to prosecute long-term research
or encourage research supervision (King 2001). Even in one of the
most innovative initiatives to recreate staff morale and staff salaries
in Makerere's 'quiet revolution', there are large questions about
the parlous state of research (Court 2000: 13).
Although it is not clear what exactly is the range of developing
country universities being discussed in the Task Force inquiry,
it is implied that it is from the public universities of Africa
and Asia that there been no less serious an outcome than 'the disappearance
of a research agenda from these universities' (Task Force 2000:
There are always problems with picking out particular examples
of the case you are trying to make. But this Task Force Report has
very little illustration of the good practices or 'notable exceptions'
in higher education with which it is principally concerned.
More than this, it is difficult to see from the Report alone, how
the Task Force actually went about its business.
We do know that it held five meetings, 2 in USA, 1 in Switzerland,
1 in the University of Cape Town and 1 in the University of Sao
Paolo. But we do not know from the internal evidence of the Report
whether Task Force members visited any other universities. There
are boxes illustrating 'the heart of the matter' in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, innovation in Uganda, interests in a more
liberal arts core curriculum in Bangladesh and Singapore, but the
boxes have no sources.
Another process is the joint ownership of this Report by UNESCO.
Both the Director General of UNESCO and the previous Deputy Director
General for Education gave lengthy speeches on higher education
in the 21st century a few days before the Tilburg meeting, and referred
to several of the key UNESCO reports concerning higher education
of the last 5 years. But neither publicly mentioned the Task Force
A last process issue is the lack of any evidence of testing the
preliminary conclusions or early drafts of the Report. This can
be extremely valuable, and it also can give a large number of key
commentators a sense of having participated in the improvement of
a policy paper.
Developing country research in an era of global knowledge acceleration
A central question must be whether the dramatic and very recent
changes in the character and dynamic of the knowledge economy can
be turned to the advantage of universities in the developing world.
At first glance, this might seem unlikely. Even though the fully
networked university (with total staff and student access to the
internet and email) is scarcely some 7 to 10 years old in many OECD
country campuses, this is still a long way off in many developing
countries, and is certain to be aid-dependent in the poorest countries
if it is to happen at all in the short to medium term.
Part of the problem is that the metaphors of leapfrogging that
are common to the discourse of the knowledge revolution are somewhat
misleading. They can sometimes give the impression that even the
poorest learner can, via a hand-held device, access the world's
store of development knowledge. But access to the internet can only
in part compensate for the absence of scientific texts that can
be studied at leisure off-line. Not to mention laboratories, chemicals,
software to run advanced statistical programmes and much else. But
the largest drawback of all is that despite the availability of
increasingly cheap computers and / or mobile phones with internet
access, these devices are still relatively expensive in many if
not most developing countries.
Moreover, whatever the quite staggering incremental growth of web-based
information and knowledge, the greatest obstacle of all is the sheer
cost of logging on in much of the developing world. The 2000 White
Paper on International Development of the UK has identified the
key constraint in most developing countries as 'the lack of a legal
and regulatory framework for a competitive telecommunications sector'
(DFID 2000: 40). It continues with an argument that sees the breaking
of national phone monopolies as an indispensable element in cheap
international access to the Net:
Without this, there is no hope of attracting the necessary investment
in infrastructure or encouraging the competition needed to bring
costs down (DFID 2000: 40).
Thus, it would appear that the rather romantic dream of leap-frogging
by developing countries (or their higher education systems) may
itself be inseparable from the removal of protection for national
telecommunications. In other words, the notion that internet access
is an uncontroversial global public good is clearly flawed. Access
may well be effectively controlled by companies with much greater
leverage and global power than any developing country phone company.
The Task Force looks at a series of large issues in higher education
and society, and it undoubtedly makes its reputation by two major
themes. First, it recalls the 'public-interest perspective' of higher
education, arguing that higher education 'offers a number of public
benefits - basic knowledge, cultural and moral leadership, international
linkages, broad access to numerous population groups, liberal education,
basic science - that have far-reaching positive consequences for
the whole society' (Prewitt 1999: 45). Second it revisits the relevance
of general education and argues that each country has the obligation
to develop its own version of a liberal education. It claims that
the more extensive general education programmes - so far from being
the refuge of those not able to enter the more vocationally-oriented
science, engineering or business studies, 'should be aimed at the
brightest and most highly motivated in any cohort'. It is aware
that such a priority runs the risk of being criticised as elitist,
but it boldly takes the view that 'not all individuals are qualified
for the same training or the same tasks, given that some tasks are
more difficult than others'. It concludes with an open declaration
in favour of education for leadership:
This implies that inequalities in some areas are a natural outcome.
Educating the most able for positions of leadership in all spheres
of life has to be in the national interest; it is a major aspect
of stratification (Task Force 2000: 89).
Research as a public good
A subset of the Task Force's first great theme of higher education
as a public good is "Research and the Public Interest"
(Task Force 2000: 42). Indeed, it retains for this theme some of
its strongest claims for the university's role in civil society,
declaring that 'One of the most powerful arguments for a public
interest in higher education is the value to a country of a well-developed
system for research and generation of knowledge' (ibid). Despite
having argued earlier that research is actually in a parlous state
in many of the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, it urges that
'Public support of knowledge generation is essential in developing
While accepting Gibbons' position that basic, non-proprietary research
is in fact distributed in a whole range of non-university institutions
(Gibbons 1998), it still takes the view that it is 'especially well
suited to universities and other higher education bodies' (Task
Force 2000: 42). It is refreshing, for once, to see higher education,
and research in particular, argued for on grounds of its value to
society, and not on the usual grounds of financial comparative advantage.
It accepts that there is bound to be specialisation world-wide in
knowledge production, but argues that a country's main way of reaping
the additional public benefits of the global knowledge system is
by having a sufficiently strong research system at the national
level that it can make international linkages.
Its most ambitious claim for research as an international public
good goes to the heart of the difference between commercial and
academic research whose findings are universally and freely available.
In a purple passage, the Task Force characterises research and scholarship
as the ideal, non-profit activity:
Internationally, higher education is an intellectual commons represented
by the invisible college of independent scholarship, knowledge production,
and scholarly training. This intellectual commons allows the world
to tackle a number of widely recognised international challenges
(Task Force 2000: 42-3).
The Vision of the Intellectual Commons and the Reality of Globalisation
Having sketched out so powerfully and persuasively the vision and
the mission of globally networked university research on behalf
of mankind, the Task Force is less certain about the underbelly
of higher education in the era of globalisation. On the one hand,
it admits that globalised higher education can have 'damaging as
well as beneficial consequences', and notes the downside of the
international marketing of fraudulent degrees and the threat of
substandard education in some forms of franchising. But it does
not deal as thoroughly with whether the transnational trade in educational
qualifications and the internationalisation of higher education
are perhaps leading in a different direction from the Task Force
vision of an intellectual commons. It is almost as if this negative
side of globalised higher education is seen as an aberration and
not as something that is inherent in the contemporary marketisation
of higher education.
The Task Force does not satisfactorily deal with the new marketisation
of higher education - which is not just a question of some dubious
degrees and some sub-standard franchising. Rather what is under
debate is a world system of competitive higher education - which
has been described as "The brave new world of international
education and training" (King 2000).
Nor does the Task Force deal very satisfactorily with the relationship
of the University to the economy. If universities produce the kind
of students that are discussed in the Task Force Report - thoughtful,
critical, innovative, critical thinkers - they will in most countries
of the developing world not be snapped up like hotcakes by industry,
but have earned themselves a passport to leave the country. Unless
the government and industry themselves acquire the characteristics
of countries that are profiting from globalisation.
It is probably too early to be sure whether the vision of the Task
Force corresponds to the reality of international co-operation in
higher education. But it is certainly the case that a great deal
that is contained within the mantra of the internationalisation
of higher education has very little to do with international co-operation
and the older vision of solidarity between North and South but rather
with OECD universities maintaining and increasing their 'market
share' of international students. The character of this present
internationalisation seems to focus increasingly on the richer parts
of the world, and to pay less and less attention to the majority
of low-income countries. Although there are certainly initiatives
and ambitions to begin to deal with the digital divide, the current
patterns of accessing knowledge (whether by staying at home or moving
to another country) parallel the movements of the massive flows
of speculative capital across the world - that is to say - they
predominantly involve movement across the high and middle income
countries of the world (King 2000).
The Task Force thus leaves us with a dilemma. It sees higher education
as a rational and feasible way for poorer countries to mitigate
or even avert the continuing decline in their relative incomes.
But it does not adequately deal with the possibility that, in the
era of the international trade in educational services, universities
in the richer countries of the world are becoming part of the problem
rather than part of the solution.
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