What role for higher education in development?

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With higher education returning to the aid agenda, SciDev.Net examines the successes, challenges and lessons to be learnt.

Anyone seeking to tackle the problems facing the developing world must remember two simple facts of life. First, none of these problems — from food shortages and the spread of disease, to achieving sustainable economic growth — can be addressed without the use of science and technology.

Second, harnessing science for development depends on the skills of a country’s people. And that in turn requires a robust and effective higher education system — the only mechanism that can produce and sustain these skills.

But in the recent past, many governments overlooked this critical information. Few developing countries, for example, refer to either science or higher education in their Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans — the documents that guide donors, and others, on a country’s investment priorities.

Fortunately, for a variety of reasons — perhaps most importantly the growing awareness of the need for a strong domestic science base to benefit from the global knowledge economy — both developing country governments, and development funding organisations, are now recognising the need to build robust higher education systems.

The next step is to consider how this can be best achieved. What is the appropriate balance between teaching and research? Should social and economic needs drive research priorities, or should complementary basic research also be a commitment? And what are the advantages — and pitfalls — of seeking to compete with higher education institutions in the developed world?

This week we publish a set of articles intended to put higher education’s role in achieving development goals under the spotlight. Topics range from the role aid agencies play in supporting this process, to the opportunities and hurdles facing policymakers on the ground.

Aid in action

A background article sets out the debate’s broad context, summarising the shifting attitudes to higher education as a development objective, the relevant initiatives that have been launched over the past decades and the challenges that these initiatives have faced (see ‘Funding for higher education: Facts and figures‘)

Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, is highlighted as having successfully used donor support to become one of the most productive universities in East Africa (see ‘Makerere University: Rebuilding a reputation‘).

Berit Olsson, former head of the Swedish aid agency instrumental in helping Makerere succeed, makes a powerful case for building the capacity of higher education institutions as the key to making science and technology contribute to a country’s development (see ‘Donors must fund the essential conditions for research‘).

Arlen Hastings, from the US-based Science Initiative Group, points to the specific challenges facing African countries seeking to follow this path. Foreign allies can help, but ultimately it is up to African countries themselves to commit to making it happen, she says (see ‘Science training: If governments lead, others will help‘).

Science advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica, Arnoldo Ventura, similarly argues for universities to promote socio-economic growth, by building links with industry. Such links are essential for any country wishing to benefit from the fruits of knowledge-based innovation, he says (see ‘New thinking needed on innovation infrastructure‘).

But these arguments raise questions about the appropriate balance between goal-oriented and curiosity-driven research. Phuong Nga Nguyen, from Vietnam National University in Hanoi, argues that gearing research towards economic and commercial priorities should not be allowed to go too far (see ‘Research governance policies threaten university capacity‘). The most successful universities in the developed world have built strength in both areas, she says.

Lemuel V. Cacho, a political scientist from De La Salle University in the Philippines, sees parallel dangers in sticking too closely to research priorities set by external organisations — including aid agencies — rather than by researchers themselves (see ‘Applied research is ousting curiosity-driven science‘). The latter, he argues, need to ensure that external funding supports scientifically challenging research.

A different danger is highlighted by Ellen Hazelkorn, Dean of the Graduate Research School at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland. A growing number of influential university rankings are leading many higher education institutes to focus excessively on high scoring activities in ranking calculations, she says (see ‘The problem with university rankings‘).

Emphasising the output of international-level research, she warns, can lead to the downgrading of other activities, such as teaching and social outreach. These may be no less important in evaluating an institution’s impact, but are harder to measure.

Lessons learnt

We do not pretend that this is a comprehensive list of the issues facing either higher education initiatives in the developing world, or the aid agencies that seek to support them.

But hopefully these articles, taken with the background material we link to, will provide a useful overview of some of the key issues at hand.

There are welcoming signs that higher education is returning to the aid agenda. Last year, for example, the US government held two international summit meetings on higher education that would have been inconceivable ten years ago, and there is talk of the World Bank following suit with a similar meeting later this year.

Developing countries’ higher education policies must be genuinely appropriate to their needs and resources. No-one wants to repeat the process that led to the neglect of higher education across much of the developing world. We hope this spotlight will help ensure that it does not happen.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net