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
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.
1. Making the case - higher education and the international
"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
money - cutting military spending or redirecting funds from higher
education, for example."
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.
- 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
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 -
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.
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
- 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
- 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
3. The report from the seminar is distributed to e-debate delegates
who are unable to attend the seminar.