Conference on Higher Education and its socio-political context

22 March 2001, Tilburg

"Research development in the "South" in the era of the internationalisation of the trade in educational services"

Kenneth King,
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 research capacity.

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 countries.

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 its status.

Research development in an era of global competition: peril or promise
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: 25)

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 Report.

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 countries' (ibid).

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.

Court D 2000 'Financing higher education in Africa: Makerere, the quiet revolution' occasional paper sponsored by Rockefeller Foundation and the Human Development Network, World Bank, Washington.

Department for International Development (DFID) 2000 Eliminating world poverty: making globalisation work for the poor Cm 5006, DFID, London

Gibbons M 1998 Higher education relevance in the 21st century Human Development Network, World Bank, Washington

King K 2001 'Africa's informal economies - 30 years on' in SAIS Review [Johns Hopkins Press] Winter-Spring 2001, Volume XXI, Number One, pp. 97-108

King K 2000 'Training as 'trade' at home and abroad: the new politics' in NORRAG NEWS NO 27, Special Issue on the brave new world of international education and training, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Munro H 2001 'International recruitment of students and trainees' paper to UKFIET/British Council Colloquium on 'Education, training and globalisation: the changing role of the British Council', March 5th 2001, London (forthcoming British Council April 2001).

Stiglitz J 2000 'Scan globally, reinvent locally: knowledge infrastructure and the localisation of knowledge' in Stone D (Ed.) Banking on knowledge: the genesis of the Global Development Network Routledge, London

Task Force on Higher Education and Society 2000 Higher education in developing countries: peril and promise World Bank, Washington.

Van de Wende M 1997 'Missing links' in Kalvemark T and Van der Wende M (eds.) National policies for the internationalisation of higher education in Europe National Agency for Higher Education & NUFFIC, Stockholm.

World Bank 1988 Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: policies for adjustment, revitalisation and expansion World Bank, Washington.