From Peril to Promise:
A Higher Education e-debate for the British Council

River Path Associates, December 2001


As part of the preparations for the 'From Peril to Promise' seminar due to be held in March 2002, a preliminary e-debate was held, to which all delegates were invited, along with other experts in the higher education field drawn from public and private sectors. A total of 55 participants from 18 countries took part in the debate, which ran for a week between Tuesday 27th November and Tuesday 4th December 2001. The debate was hosted and moderated by River Path Associates.

The debate began with three short think pieces covering developing-country higher education (HE) issues under three themes: making the case; funding; and implementation of HE policy.

Think pieces

1. Making the case - higher education and the international system

"Our universities must produce men and women willing to fight an intellectual battle for self-confidence and self-assertion as equal players in the emerging globalized world."

President Benjamin William Mkapa of Tanzania

Since September 11, many of the world's politicians have talked of "winning the peace" as well as the war. A more secure world requires strong societies, able to govern themselves effectively; participate in an increasingly complex international system; and seize the opportunities offered by a global economy where goods, capital, labour and knowledge are flowing ever faster. The demands are significant, as are the dangers if a growing number of countries stagnate because they are unable to keep up.

At issue is effective politics, as much as economic development. Building institutions that command public support requires a complex range of skills that only advanced education can deliver. Internationally, governments must negotiate with their neighbours, with regional blocs, and multilateral organisations. At home, society must respond to changing international conditions, while encouraging economic development that is resilient and flexible, as well as productive. As the Task Force on Higher Education and Society argues: "Without improved human capital, countries will inevitably fall behind and experience intellectual and economic marginalization and isolation. The result will be continuing, if not rising poverty."

Advanced education is especially important to countries undergoing post-conflict reconstruction. The problems these countries face are the most intractable. And, where there is significant international investment, the development of local capacity is essential to securing lasting gains. Basic education is certainly necessary to the future of post-conflict regions, but higher education institutions have a central, and growing, role to play.

Many questions remain however:

- What kind of higher education contributes most to societies undergoing post-conflict reconstruction?

- Are rising standards of higher education a solution to, or a cause of political instability?

- Do religious and educational values conflict with one another?

- Why is the importance of higher education so rarely acknowledged by the world's policy-makers?

2. Funding: who funds what?

"$2 billion must be spent where the primary education crisis is worst: in sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside this, African governments must release at least $1.6 billion per year… by redirecting money - cutting military spending or redirecting funds from higher education, for example."

Oxfam UK

In attempting to bolster their higher education systems, developing country governments must make a number of tough, and perhaps controversial decisions. Demand for higher education is spiralling. Budgets are inevitably tight. And basic and secondary education makes strong demands for extra funding.

With limited budgets for education, developing country governments have to answer two major questions.

First, how to divide budgets between primary, secondary and tertiary education? Economists have traditionally argued that the rate of return to higher education is low when compared to primary and secondary education. Such analysis, however, neglects the wider benefits of education (of all levels) to building strong societies and economies. But how are these benefits to be quantified and how much state funding do they justify? How can governments answer the charge that higher education only benefits the rich elite?

Second, where should state money be directed? In theory, the public should invest in public goods and remove subsidy where students are prepared to pay. This means grants for bright but poor students, and investment in research that will assist broad-based, sustainable development. Developing the skills to select and implement new technologies, for example, could catalyse economic growth or tackle endemic social problems. Disentangling public from private benefits is not a simple task, however, and judging the outcomes of a given investment will always be a speculative task.

These questions should be placed in a broader consideration of the role of governments in higher education systems. Governments can act as providers, supervisors or financers of education, or they can combine all three roles. As always, a government must look both at what it would like to achieve and what it is has a realistic chance of delivering.

Some questions:

- How should governments decide how much to spend on education and how much to spend on different levels of education?

- How can public subsidies best be directed towards public goods?

- What role can governments best play in higher education systems?

- How can governments deal with political fallout from tough decisions on funding?

3. Implementation: from peril to promise

Developing country higher education systems face a range of serious challenges. Demand is increasing rapidly. Many higher education systems are poorly planned and institutions inadequately governed. Faculty are often under-paid and students poorly taught. Finally, brain drain ensures that many of higher education's finest products and most valuable assets are 'lost' to other countries.

The Task Force recommends that each country should try and look holistically at its higher education system. This means sponsoring a national debate to determine what each system can realistically be expected to deliver. It requires setting clear goals for future development, while encouraging institutions to specialise according to the strengths they possess and the opportunities they enjoy.

The Task Force also calls for reform at institutional level. Poor institutional governance is a problem across the world. Academic freedom and autonomy are threatened, while there is a clear need for better monitoring and accountability. Meritocracy, meanwhile, must be enshrined at the heart of higher education. Inequitable access and corrupt selection pose twin threats to successful implementation programmes.

From Peril to Promise - the British Council seminar - aims to move beyond the appreciation of these problems to strategies for actions. This requires a move from the Task Force's global focus to a country and institutional-level dialogue. It also requires hard-won experience to be shared more effectively around the world.

Members of this short e-debate are therefore asked to consider:

- How can governments develop and communicate a vision and a strategy for higher education?

- How can the quantity of higher education be increased without seriously diluting quality?

They are also invited to share their experience of what reforms are being tried around the world, what has been found to work - and why.

Key themes

Discussion was sporadic - perhaps in part because of the novelty of the medium - but three key themes were debated.

The first of the think pieces asked how governments can develop and communicate a vision and a strategy for higher education. Stanislaw Chwirot (University Accreditation Commission, Poland) identified the time lag between the initial investment and the final results as a disincentive to governments. In the intervening period other political pressures are likely to squeeze budgets and lessen the priority for governments. Stanislaw noted that "politicians advertise their interest in education, but get swamped by the need to deal with more pressing issues when they are in government." David Bloom (Harvard University, USA) picked up on this problem, suggesting that more research attention should be paid to public opinion: "If polling and other evidence reveals strong interest in the development of higher education among the public overall or even among certain key segments of the electorate, political leaders will perceive an incentive to act."

Higher education, in order to achieve greater resonance with the public, needs to move beyond its traditional position as a preserve of the privileged, with the population at large sensing there is little chance for them or their families to move beyond secondary level. Eduardo Aldana (University de los Andes, Colombia) suggested replacing the term 'Higher' with 'Tertiary', thus publicly underlining the integrity of HE within the wider education system, and the fact that it could and should cater for the mass of a population. Stanislaw Chwirot also saw the current shift towards a concept of continuous education as providing an opportunity to bolster higher education's profile and meet the needs of businesses and other organisations.

The second major theme focussed on the importance of good governance to the successful implementation of HE programs. Saliem Fakir (Director of IUCN-SA, South Africa) asked the fundamental question of "whether spending on Higher Education can have a long lasting impact if the system of governance is itself in tatters". Whilst planning and allocation of resources is key, it is not simply a question of facilitating the mere existence of HE in a given country, but ensuring that it is delivered efficiently and equitably. Arnold van der Zanden (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands) agreed that getting the institutions and governance right was a key priority and, referring to the role of international donors, pointed out that a systematic approach to building capacity implied a profound shift in perspective from the donor's point of view, in that it involves a shift from "micro-simplicity to macro-complexity".

Thirdly, the internationalisation of knowledge and learning and the problem of "brain drain" were addressed. The role of developed world donors or sponsors is crucial to funding and developing higher education systems, but in some cases, and particularly in countries where Overseas Development Assistance makes up the majority of the government budget, there appears to be a conflict over whose objectives are being met. One of the first corollaries of donors' investment in HE institutions, Saliem Fakir argued, is the exodus of many of a country's most talented young people - the so-called "brain drain". As a response to this loss of crucial human and knowledge capital, Porntip Kanjananiyot (Ministry of University Affairs, Thailand) highlighted the case of Thailand, which has embraced the UNESCO concept of 'Brain Gain' by encouraging Thai professionals abroad to conduct joint projects in Thailand during vacations or sabbatical leaves, and maintaining the contact electronically once they are back in their countries of residence. Exploiting the knowledge capital produced by investment in higher education is likely to continue to be a critical issue for policy makers and public alike.

The seminar

With regard to the Peril to Promise seminar in March, the e-debate provided some interesting additional content ideas. The current list of priority areas for discussion is as follows:

- The impact of higher education on development and poverty reduction

- The organisation of HE systems

- The links between higher education, research capacity and policy formulation

- The funding of HE

- The governance of HE institutions

- The links between science and technology and HE systems

- The peril and promise of globalisation for HE in developing countries

- The role of higher education institutions in the AIDS crisis

Of these, globalisation, funding and the governance and organisation of HE systems were all discussed in the e-debate. The contributors to the debate added two themes - national governance and the political case for HE to the existing discussion points.

The debate broadened the theme of the governance of institutions to encompass the governance of countries. Without effective government at a national level, it was felt, there would be no solid foundation for implementation of successful higher education systems. This raises a chicken-and-egg question: should countries wait until stability has been achieved before investing in higher education, or can investment in HE promote stability? Indeed, is HE essential to promoting stability?

The political argument for HE was the second new content idea to emerge from the debate. Without public pressure for higher education, governments can too easily jettison an area whose benefits are likely to be realised in the long-term in favour of more pressing, short-term claims for their attention and money. Instead of purely focussing on politicians, therefore, those wishing to promote the benefits of higher education - be they international donors, foreign governments or academic institutions themselves - should devote resources to convincing the public of these benefits.

Recommendations for the seminar

It is recommended that:

1. The 2 linked themes of national governance and the political arguments for HE are discussed early in the seminar, as vital background determinants of the success of HE programs.

2. This report is distributed to delegates as part of the seminar briefing pack.

3. The report from the seminar is distributed to e-debate delegates who are unable to attend the seminar.