Mastering Globalization:           

From Ideas to Action on Higher Education Reform[1]


David E. Bloom

Harvard University

December 2002




Almost everyone sees education as essential to development, but until recently very few of those responsible for formulating education policy for the developing world have acknowledged the value of higher education. Organizations like the World Bank have traditionally accorded higher education a relatively low priority, believing both that it favored the elite in society and that returns on higher education investment were much lower than returns on investment in primary and secondary education. In its new report, ‘Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education’, the Bank itself has admitted that: “Much of the support provided by World Bank tertiary education projects was piecemeal…The Bank was rarely able to offer the type of long-term comprehensive support for tertiary education that is required for successful reform and effective institution building.”

Globalization is exposing this position – where on the one hand education is said to be essential, and on the other the most advanced type of education is neglected – as being fundamentally inappropriate to developing countries’ needs. The process of globalization is making higher education more important than ever before, and the neglect of this sector seriously threatens development.

As this paper will argue, globalization exerts new pressures on higher education, making reform essential. But ideas on reform are not enough – and herein lies another contradiction relating to both development and higher education: the policy community devises many possible reforms, but does little to promote effective implementation. This, of course, applies to most development priority areas, but this paper will focus on three main points, all related to higher education.

·        Higher education is essential to promoting sustainable human development and economic growth. It is no longer a luxury that only rich countries can afford, but an absolute necessity for all countries, and especially for poor countries.

·        The pressures of globalization make it urgent that we devote substantially more resources to the tertiary education sector, and that we also reform it at both the level of individual institutions and the system as a whole. 

·        Good ideas are not enough; focusing on implementation is at least as important as policy design. The harsh realities of taking an idea to the field and bringing it to scale must be considered in the design of policy.


One: the importance of higher education

Globalization has turned a piercing spotlight onto each country’s higher education systems and institutions. Globalization refers to the process whereby countries become more integrated via movements of goods, capital, labor, and ideas. Trade (the main channel through which globalization is occurring) offers great advantages because it allows each country to specialize in what it does best – in other words, to have a more refined international division of labor. Globalization has both facilitated, and been facilitated by, advances in information and communications technology. These advances, coupled with the increasingly refined international division of labor, have meant that new ideas are quickly brought to fruition and new technologies developed, and superseded, more rapidly than at any other time in history. Knowledge has become an increasingly important determinant of the wealth of nations, and access to knowledge, and the ability to disseminate it, has become a major source of competitive advantage.

Higher education can be a vital tool for helping developing countries to benefit from globalization. So far, most technological advances have been born in the developed world. Although rich countries are home to just 15% of the world’s population, they are responsible for over 90% of patents granted.[2] If developing countries aspire to catch up, higher education can be a fundamental instrument for speeding that process. Learning how to access ideas and technologies developed elsewhere and put them into practice – skills that higher education is uniquely well-suited to build – can enable developing countries to garner the benefits of globalization without the laborious and costly process of discovery. Higher education can also help countries attract foreign investment and participate more effectively in international affairs given the technical demands of diplomacy, international commerce, and global governance. In other words, higher education can help developing countries use the economic transformation being wrought by globalization to leapfrog stages of development.

Globalization, in turn, can help a country benefit from the products of higher education. One of the problems in the Arab world is that, in countries like Egypt and Jordan, many young people are emerging from higher education institutions with no jobs to fill. Rigid labor markets and a failure to connect to global trade routes have led to relative isolation and economic stagnation in much of the Middle East. Having large numbers of well-educated – but unemployed -- young people can be a recipe for unrest. Well-managed integration into the global economy, on the other hand, can boost economies, promote foreign investment, and create jobs, enabling countries to take advantage of the products of their higher education systems and benefit from their skills and knowledge. Globalization can also help institutions benefit from lessons learned in other countries, and from linking up with foreign institutions to solve problems.

The combination of globalization and higher education offers huge potential for improving living standards. India, for example has taken advantage of globalization by building up its software engineering industry, in terms of trained software engineers, back office services industry, and new companies and projects. The economies of those parts of India – such as Bangalore and Hyderabad – that are participating in these activities are flourishing, and provide a good example of a country using higher education to take advantage of one of the many promising opportunities offered by globalization. Over 80,000 people work in Bangalore’s high-tech industry – many of them products of the city’s 100 research universities and technical colleges. IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems have all either set up software development centers or established links with local firms so that they can take advantage of India’s supply of well-trained computer graduates.

But the international community, and most developing countries themselves, have yet to realize the enormous benefits of higher education. Large gains have been made in promoting basic and secondary education, but the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and the recent declaration of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg make no mention of tertiary schooling.

It is particularly striking that higher education is not mentioned as an instrument for achieving even one of the eight Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations (see Appendix for a list of these goals). Yet attainment of every single one of them will be much easier if a country has a strong and productive higher education system.

The first two goals, for example – halving the proportion of people whose income is less than a dollar a day and the proportion living in hunger by 2015 – are largely reliant on economic development and poverty reduction measures. Without a higher education system, who is going to devise poverty reduction strategies? Who is going to carry out the agricultural research to develop the technologies appropriate for those living off the land? And who is going to put in place policies that promote economic development and negotiate debt relief and access to rich-world markets at the WTO?

The next goal – ensuring universal primary and secondary education – is also reliant on higher education to train the teachers who will ensure that increased quantity of education is matched by improved quality.

And this also applies to most of the other six goals. Empowering women requires, among many other things, women who have the skills to hold positions of power. Reducing infant mortality requires better-trained medical staff. And reversing the loss of environmental resources needs, among many other knowledge-driven initiatives, research into alternative energy sources. All are also closely linked to educational achievement, and particularly the skills in knowledge development and application that higher education produces.

The point is that higher education offers great opportunities for developing countries to benefit from, and help direct, the process of globalization. It can contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and it can empower countries to adopt new technology to meet domestic needs and help them catch up with the global economy.

Unfortunately, this need for higher education in developing countries is going largely unmet. In much of the developing world, higher education delivery is woefully unsuited to the demands of globalization. Existing systems satisfy neither the requirements of the global labor market nor domestic social and economic needs. Issues needing attention include the following:

·        Where today’s world requires problem-solving skills and flexibility, many of today’s developing country universities focus on rote learning, where memory, and not creativity and curiosity, is rewarded. In a fast-changing world, higher education institutions must teach their students not only what is known now, but also how to keep their knowledge up to date. Flexibility and a grasp of new knowledge-gathering technologies are vital, but sadly lacking in most of the developing world.

·        Equally important is the failure of curricula to encompass the knowledge, skills, and perspectives students need to know. As the recent Task Force on Higher Education and Society report (see below for more on this report) stated, infrastructure constraints and a reliance on tradition have left many arts and humanities graduates ensconced in the ranks of “educated unemployment”.

·        Higher education systems are failing to take advantage of opportunities offered by global integration. Globalization is allowing people to burrow out of the confines of their own institutions and link up with others to solve problems, but cross-institutional and cross-border networks, which offer great promise for promoting scientific innovation appropriate to developing countries’ needs, are as yet few and far between. 


Two: the need for reform

The need for reform was the focus of the report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society, which was co-convened by UNESCO and the World Bank in 1997 and whose report was issued in 2000.[3] The Task Force suggested that, “urgent action to expand the quantity and improve the quality of higher education in developing countries should be a top development priority.” Higher education, the report states, “is to a knowledge economy as primary education is to an agrarian economy and secondary education is to an industrial economy.”

The Task Force report was something of a landmark in higher education thinking. World Bank President James Wolfensohn described it as a “wonderful road map” for development policy makers. “Well-educated people from the developing world,” he said in launching the report, “can be a powerful force for change, but they need schools and academic opportunities in their own countries.” The report outlines the case for higher education reform, addresses the obstacles, and suggests ways of overcoming them. Following is a brief summary of the report’s five interrelated themes.

Higher education and the public interest

Modern ignorance about higher education has been led by economists, who have had an overly simple way of assessing the return on investments in higher education. The basic problem is that they have measured the return on education exclusively through wage differentials. With reference to someone who has no education, someone who has been to primary school, someone who has completed secondary school, and someone with a university degree, one can ask how much more each earns than the previous. These differences are then compared to the incremental amounts invested in their education to find the return. The results generally suggest that higher education yields a lower return than primary or secondary education – and they have been used to justify the skewing of government budgets (and developments funds) away from higher education institutions.

The rate of return calculations are flawed at the very least because they do not take account of the full range of benefits to those who receive higher education. For example, higher education can enhance health and reduce fertility – so the private benefits to the individual are not just the direct labor productivity benefits, as the rate of return analysis suggests.

Looking more broadly, however, higher education obviously confers benefits above and beyond enhancing the incomes of those who receive their degrees. And many of these benefits take the form of public goods, such as the contribution of higher education to enterprise, leadership, governance, culture, and participatory democracy, and its potential for lifting the disadvantaged out of poverty. These are all vital building blocks for stronger economies and societies and all routes by which the benefit of investment in higher education multiplies throughout society.

Systems of higher education

Improving higher education requires the adoption of a system-wide perspective on higher education, i.e., viewing the structure and operation of higher education institutions in concert, not just individually. A higher education system encompasses everything from public research universities to private vocational schools. A system-wide perspective will need to address the place of these institutions vis-à-vis each other, as well as their links to the rest of the education system and the broader society. Such a perspective lends itself naturally to the development of a rational and stratified system of higher education in the public interest, with different types of institutions, from research universities to vocational colleges, dedicated to different missions. Links to higher education institutions in other countries are also becoming increasingly important.


In the view of many people involved with higher education in the developing world, governance ­– the arrangements, both formal and informal, that allow the higher education “team” to function – is the key problem impeding the effectiveness of higher education institutions. A set of principles to address this problem – such as academic freedom, autonomy, the need for monitoring and accountability, and meritocratic selection ­– is essential in beginning to address it. Tools for converting these principles into action, ranging from specific mechanisms for hiring and promoting faculty and appointing university administrators, to boards of trustees, faculty councils, institutional handbooks, and visiting committees, are also critical. 

Science and technology

Science and technology present a unique set of challenges for universities across the world. First, basic science is, itself, a public good. Basic scientific inquiry often needs huge investment to deliver long term, but highly uncertain, benefits. The market is not very good at funding this research on its own – especially when the benefits will be felt by the poor more than the rich. Researching a cure for malaria, for example, has had low priority.

Second, the way that scientific knowledge is produced is changing rapidly. Increasingly science is done across organizational and disciplinary boundaries, it involves public and private sector participation, and it is often directed toward working in teams to solve a strategically important problem, such as developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine, rather than having individual scientists working alone in a relatively uncoordinated manner in their laboratories.

Third, scientific progress is leading to growing uncertainty, rather than certainty. The furor over genetically-modified foods – which ties together cutting edge science, big business, and globalization – is a perfect example of how difficult it has become to understand where a particular scientific advance is taking us.

These three factors mean that universities must be substantially more flexible if they are to fund science adequately, pull together the highest caliber of scientific teams, build curricula relevant to modern societies, and maintain public support for their scientific research.

These problems are compounded in many developing countries, where, due to weak human resources, inadequate equipment, a lack of connectivity to the rest of the research world and many other factors, the science and technology base is currently low. Developing such a base is no longer optional, but is becoming mandatory for all countries trying to compete in the global knowledge economy.

The importance of general education

General education emphasizes the development of the whole individual, and not just their occupational training. It highlights the ability to think, communicate, and learn; and to adopt a broad historical, comparative, and disciplinary perspective on different issues. It is also a foundation for later, more specialized, study. 

Developing countries could benefit from the introduction – or in a few cases the expansion – of high-quality general education. Such an education is not for all students, but it is in each country’s public interest to have individuals who can operate at a high intellectual level in rapidly changing times – whether that involves negotiating with the International Monetary Fund, deciding whether to import generic AIDS drugs, deliberating on the ethical issues surrounding genetically modified food, or acting to develop a national legal system that can robustly protect fundamental human rights.

The content of general education curricula will naturally vary across countries. For example, South Africa should not blindly adopt a Canadian model. Rather, it should take lessons learned elsewhere and adapt them to the needs of South African society. South Africa, where English is widely spoken, for example, may not need the same language courses as a country like Korea. It may, however, need more courses in building strong institutions, so individuals educated in subjects like law, philosophy, economics, and politics might be relatively more important. Designing a general education program offers the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what matters to a particular society. It offers the opportunity to focus on a country’s history, its culture, and its values. Doing this will help energize the whole higher education system – and, in time, change the way a society thinks about itself, too.


Three: Implementation

Good ideas by themselves are simply not enough. The field of international development is littered with sensible policy suggestions that have come to nothing in practice. As noted earlier, there is a contradiction here – both in the development arena as a whole and higher education in particular – where much more time is spent discussing policy design than how the policy is actually going to be implemented.

Two issues – curriculum reform and brain drain – illustrate some of the difficulties implementing new higher education policies in the era of globalization.

Curriculum reform is widely recognized as being necessary if higher education institutions in developing countries are to produce graduates capable of participating and competing in our emerging global society. But curriculum reform is usually seen as purely a technical problem, as distinct from a political one. In fact it is both a technical and a political problem and the failure to recognize the political aspects of curriculum reform is usually the cause of its undoing.

In many cases, the failure of curriculum reform can be ascribed to the adoption of a top-down committee approach. Stakeholder involvement is vital to curriculum design and reform, and leaving out interested and affected parties can be fatal. All parties with an interest in reform (including teachers, students, administrators, employers and donors) must be encouraged to voice their views – and current faculty in particular must be handled with care, as they are often the ones who feel most threatened by curriculum change. Without this widespread involvement, reformers will fail to bring on board the very people responsible for curriculum delivery.

The political obstacles to reform are also highlighted by the brain drain issue. Highly trained human resources can be bought, and they can be bought more easily now because there is more mobility. Students who are skilled in the development and acquisition of knowledge are tempting targets for firms wishing either to get an edge over their competition and for governments and international development organizations needing to fill vacant posts. This has led to brain drain, where students whose education has been paid for by a developing-world government remain (or go) abroad with the skills they have acquired abroad or at home, and thereafter contribute little but remittances to their home country.

Brain drain makes arguing the case for investment in higher education difficult. If a sizable number of a country’s best students, whose education has been funded out of the public purse, emigrate as soon as they leave college, what benefit has the country reaped from the investment? Questions like this pose serious threats to the reform process. Unless brain drain is considered at the policy development stage, it may come to complicate decisions about investment in higher education and it could provoke strong political opposition.

To reiterate, the point here is that consideration of the politics of reform as well as its technical aspects is crucial. In this connection, Pakistan's efforts at higher education reform provide some instructive examples.

As in much of the rest of the developing world, Pakistan had traditionally taken education to mean predominantly primary and secondary schooling. Both quantity and quality of higher education delivery were woefully inadequate for the country’s needs. Governance and management structures and practices, inefficient use of resources, inadequate funding, poor recruitment practices, a lack of attention to research, and the politicization of faculty, staff, and students all blocked the path to efficient delivery. So reform was urgently needed.

The complex political situation in Pakistan also complicates reform. The country is effectively ruled by a military dictatorship and a fairly chaotic bureaucracy that makes it difficult to achieve anything quickly – not a promising context for implementing a far-reaching reform process.

Recently, a group of reform-minded Pakistanis met to address this situation. They included representatives from academia, civil society, business, and the Boston Group – an American-based Pakistani think tank. Going beyond the usual technical aspects of reform, they also addressed the political aspects of reform and its implementation. To be sure, they made recommendations on technical matters such as the length of Bachelor’s degrees, how much new funding was required (and the creation of an endowment to help raise it), delinking faculty pay from the Government’s pay scales, and peer review of faculty to ensure that excellence is rewarded (more details of the technical steps can be found on the Task Force for Higher Education website at But they also dealt thoughtfully, systematically, and respectfully with the opponents of change, which consisted of a formidable array of higher education institutions reluctant to adapt, politicians and government officials opposed to the involvement of the Boston Group, and many people opposed to President Musharraf’s regime in general.

In order to effect change in such a system, the Pakistan Higher Education Task Force relied on what they describe as an entrepreneurial model. This model seeks to promote and encourage “social entrepreneurs”, who seek out “strategic points of entry” into the reform process. Thus, instead of trying to get everybody lined up together at the outset and then undertake every part of the reform process at once, individuals and small groups take the initiative and, by effecting change in one small part of the system, attempt to trigger larger changes in other areas.

In this model, it is possible to initiate reform without government support, and even without the support of the whole higher education community. By creating and promoting early success stories, others can be encouraged to become active and build the momentum that will eventually get the politicians’ attention.

The Pakistan Task Force model appears to have made a favorable impression on the country’s leaders. On hearing the report and recommendations of the Task Force, President Musharraf announced an immediate 1 billion rupee (currently about USD 18 million) increase – an increase of one third over the previous budget – in the budget allocation for public universities in the current fiscal year. He also approved the establishment of a Higher Education Commission and an overall doubling of government grants to higher education by 2004-05. The Pakistan reform is still at an early stage, but the example is a promising one, because it shows what can be done even from unpromising beginnings. Higher education reform does not happen overnight, but globalization is changing the world so fast there is no time to waste in embarking on reform.

The example of Pakistan is not necessarily the best or the only approach to reform, and it is not clear that it can be replicated elsewhere. But we do need to pay attention to the reform process and think as deeply about the politics as we do about the technical issues.

In sum, it is time to resolve the contradictions surrounding higher education in the developing world. We need those responsible for education as a whole and those responsible for higher education in particular to start working in the same direction. Only then can they propel their countries forward to help shape the path and process of globalization and take full advantage of globalization’s potential.



Millennium Development Goals and Targets


Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day

Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger


Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling


Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005 and in all levels of education no later than 2015


Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate


Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Reduce by three-quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio


Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS

Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases


Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and program and reverse the loss of environmental resources

Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water

Have achieved, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers


Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

Develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, nondiscriminatory trading and financial system (includes a commitment to good governance, development, and poverty reduction—both nationally and internationally)




[1] Based on a speech delivered at University of Laval conference “Globalisation: What Issues Are at Stake for Universities”, September 18-21, 2002, Quebec, Canada. The author is grateful to Tariq Banuri, Gilles Breton, Michel Lambert, Mamphela Ramphele, Larry Rosenberg, Henry Rosovsky, and Mark Weston for helpful comments and discussions.