Launch of The Higher Education Task Force Report

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 Omni Shoreham Hotel, Regency Ballroom, Washington, D.C.
Henry Rosovsky, Co-chair of the Task Force for Higher Education

I realize that most of you have not read the report so what I will try and do is very quickly to summarize the report. I think Jim Wolfensohn has made it easier for us because he has mentioned many of the most important points. Before doing that, I just want to add something to what my co-chair said at lunch. She mentioned Kamal Ahmad, who actually in many ways started this whole exercise. He first came to see me - I don't remember how many years ago - to suggest this undertaking. David Bloom has already been mentioned - without him, we would not have had a report. Larry Rosenberg is here who did an enormous amount of work with us within the secretariat and Phil Altbach, well known indeed to many of you, provided us with a great deal of good advice and assistance.

I should also say that we have a website: You can all go there and download the report and do whatever you wish with it, in the spirit of what our chairman talked about.

The Task Force asked three questions. What is the role of higher education in enhancing and supporting economic and social development? Secondly, what are the major obstacles in performing this role? And thirdly how might these obstacles be overcome?

Keep in mind that we were assigned 80% of the world's population. That is the population living in developing countries. So obviously detailed country-specific policy recommendations were out of the question. Instead, what we decided to do was to write what might be called an essay, to stimulate discussion from the point of view of individual countries. In fact, our hope is that people concerned with higher education, in universities, in ministries, the public and so forth, will sit down, examine what we have to say and filter it from the point of view of their own societies, their own culture and their own needs.

Our report is not primarily a research document but our arguments are based on specific information. We conducted hearings in different parts of the world with members of the higher education community. We did an extensive literature review. We sent our report out to literally hundreds of critics and we had consultations and finally we relied heavily on the intellectual capital of the task force. This was quite considerable if you look at the amount of experience that we were fortunate enough to garner.

The report itself is divided into the following: first, a description of the baseline as far as higher education in developing countries is concerned today, followed by five topics which we chose because in our view they had not been dealt with in previous work. We paid less attention to, for example, finance and information technology, both of which have a very extensive literature. We mention them but they are not the primary focus of our work. I'm going to try and give you a one or two sentence summary of each chapter.

Let me begin with the baseline. The traditional difficulties of higher education in most of the developing world need very little elaboration to an audience of this kind: inadequate qualifications, poor facilities, poor compensation, poor funding - all of these are well known.

Add to that what we call the new realities. In fact the new realities probably become important sometime in 1960s but they are becoming more and more important all the time. One is the tremendous expansion or pressure for expansion of higher education -within that private higher education is the most rapidly growing sector. And in addition to that is the frequently uncontrolled differentiation of institutions of higher education - many different institutions coming up all the time - private, public, denominational, vocational, you name it. A tremendous and quite uncontrolled proliferation.
Add to that one other element: the knowledge revolution and its corollary globalization, that appears to be a cause of an already large gap between rich and poor, and that has made higher education, we believe, more important than ever before in human history.

That is the baseline. From there we go on to consider the public interest in higher education. I'm going to say very little about that because Ken Prewitt will address that specifically, let me only say this: globalization and the rising importance of markets really raises questions about how to define and how to protect the public interest. Markets can play a major and very beneficial role but they will not deliver some crucial educational goods, for example markets are unlikely to deliver very much basic science; they are unlikely to deliver education in the humanities in adequate quantities and they are unlikely to provide access for the disadvantaged.

Therefore, and this leads us to the next topic, we urge the development of rational and national systems of higher education. Very often if you look at the literature, it tends to focus on institutions, it very rarely focuses on national systems, that include in their purview all the different kinds of education that exist. When we talk about systems we welcome private, we welcome even, for profit, we want to put these together with public, with universities, with colleges - and try and develop a vision of the whole system.

We talk about the characteristics of a good system at some length. We say it should be supervised but not controlled. That it should be stratified. In other words that the various missions of institutions be clarified; that they have clear roles; that indeed there should be system-wide resources - something Mr. Wolfensohn mentioned on an international level. We develop the concept of learning commons, perhaps laboratories, computer facilities, libraries and so forth, not just for one institution but available for many different institutions.

From systems, we turn to governance, which I have to say, seems to be viewed by nearly everyone as a, or even the, key problem for higher education in the developing world. I happen to be personally interested in issues of governance and wherever we pressed this issue, we received the answer that it is a problem of major dimensions. We tried to develop a set of principles as parameters for management of institutions of higher education. We recognize that traditions differ, that there are many different habits and ways of doing things, but we tried to develop a flexible set of principles that can be applied to almost any institution of higher education. These include academic freedom, a certain amount of shared governance, accountability, standards of selection and things of that kind. They are too numerous for me to discuss here. If followed, we believe they will improve governance.

Next, we turn to the question of science and technology. This is one of the few things that the bank specifically asked us to look at. Rich countries are leaping ahead and the gap is growing wider in science and in technology. We tried to outline specific actions for improving the situation in developing countries. Again, I can only touch on this very superficially. We look at it from the point of view of physical capital, laboratories, a global clearing house for second-hand equipment just as an example, abolishing tariffs for the importing of scientific equipment, things of that kind. We look at it from the point of view of human resources, various measures to prevent or lessen the brain drain, again something Mr. Wolfensohn talked about. And we explore network capital, especially the importance of internet connectivity.

Lastly our fifth chapter is a plea for general education, which some of you may see as our most eccentric recommendation and it may well be. What is it we're talking about? We're talking about imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual abilities within university education. We're talking about the development of an individual, apart from occupational training.

Each country, in our view, needs to develop its own vision of what an educated person is from their particular point of view. We believe that in itself developing this description, this criterion, is of very great value. We recognize that general education probably emphasizes the most talented segments of the population. We emphasize flexibility for this group. We strongly believe these capacities are highly valued by the labor market and we also believe that secondary education can no longer perform this task. At one time, in some of the countries there were traditions of very high level of secondary education, usually very elitist in nature, that may have done some of it but this is really no longer possible today. I think the obligation for general education today has clearly shifted to the universities.

We believe that higher education has an important role in poverty elimination. It is needed in the current world to prevent national marginalization in a knowledge-intensive globalized world.

The issue is not less primary and secondary education, not at all, the issue is better higher education. Higher education benefits all segments of society, we think, directly and indirectly. Our position is not elitist except in the sense of providing opportunities for the most able to make maximum contributions. That helps everybody in the society.

Lastly, I just want to make a very brief comment about what the Doctor Salmi said in his introduction when he asked us to imagine what a university looks like or higher education. I have had a nightmare like this myself and I can picture my own university. The library has become an old-age home, I suppose. The dormitories have become condos. The president is an 18 year old geek with an associate degree from Vigi-Penn Institute of Technology, and all of Harvard University has become one big server which can fit in the corner of one of these rooms.

I have to say that I don't believe that will happen. I think that many of the trends that we are indeed living in revolutionary times and I suspect that 50 years from now it may be difficult to recognize some of our institutions, but I am quite sure many aspects of the traditional university will survive, because I do think that tertiary education carried out at its best at some point will continue to involve human interaction. The key is of course to combine it with all the technological advances to produce the most efficient system.