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African higher education development – Competing visions

From 2002 to 2013, only 2.7% of international aid supported higher education in developing countries (Childs 2015). Given the knowledge economy’s thirst for skills, the societal benefits and global policy frameworks that support higher education funding, we are left wondering why higher education received so little support.

This article argues that the competing visions of the World Bank and UNESCO on higher education’s benefits and beneficiaries have prevented them from coordinating a united vision for higher education development.

I argue that in the absence of a consensus regarding higher education development, education ministries must be aware of the competing visions and navigate them according to their social and economic needs.

Disparate natures

To understand the discourse on higher education development, we must look at the disparate nature of UNESCO and the World Bank, the former being a financially weak international norm-setting forum and the latter a financially strong inter-governmental bank.

At the outset of post-colonial African development, UNESCO’s 1961 and 1962 Conference of African Ministers of Education designated the university as the institution for social, economic, political and human capital development (Obamba 2012).

However, by 1973 World Bank economist George Psacharopoulos’ ‘Returns on Education’ had ushered in an era of Bank policy centred on economic rates of return. Fixating on rates of return led economists to separate education into sectors: basic, secondary and higher.

Each sector has different rates of return and status as a public or private good. Higher education was detrimentally cast as a private good, with low returns. From 1973 until 1996, numerous World Bank publications prioritised basic education development for its perceived higher rate of return (Obamba 2012).

From 1973 to 1996 was an era of ‘rates of return’ that focused World Bank policies. Structural adjustment loans mandated governments to spend public funds on basic education and therefore retract funds from higher education (MacGregor 2015).

Indeed, the Bank’s 1985 paper “Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa” recommended cutting public support for the region’s failing higher education sector (Obamba 2012).

One year later, at a meeting of African university officials, Bank representatives even recommended closing existing universities in favour of sending students abroad (Teferra 2010).

New approaches

In contrast, UNESCO’s 1980 Lagos Plan of Action continued to promote the university as the vehicle of national development (Obamba 2012). However, by the 1990 Education for All framework, UNESCO had affirmed an incremental approach to sectoral development – hence excluding higher education from the framework.

The World Bank’s rates of return-centred policy regime and UNESCO’s financial weakness and evolving interest in incremental development allowed higher education in developing regions to deteriorate.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD’s pioneering 1996 publication The Knowledge-Based Economy marked a pro-higher education policy shift. The knowledge economy emerged from globalisation to present knowledge capital as the newest form of capital. Higher education was emphasised as the source of knowledge capital creation.

By 1999, the World Bank’s World Development Report stated that knowledge was crucial to development (Obamba 2012). UNESCO’s 1998 “World Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century”, adopted by the World Conference on Higher Education, emphasised higher education development to distribute the technological and logistical transformations initiated by globalisation.

Although decades of prioritising basic education were unravelling, the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals subsumed Education for All’s goals without including higher education goals.

Illustrating their policy pivot, the World Bank scoffed: “It is doubtful that any developing country could make significant progress toward the [Millennium Development Goals] related to education... without a strong tertiary education system” (World Bank 2002).

Competing development frameworks

In the 21st century, UNESCO and the World Bank espoused competing development frameworks – widening participation versus innovating the higher education system.

UNESCO justified higher education by its social welfare benefits. In 1963 the Robbins Report in the United Kingdom established that higher education offered societal benefits beyond the private good.

These benefits ranged from utilitarian to social welfare, from increased taxes and worker productivity to social cohesion and life expectancy (Bradly 2013). Dispensing these benefits across society is an important motivation for widening participation.

UNESCO focuses on the humanistic benefits of higher education development. This is seen in the 1998 “World Declaration on Higher Education” and 2015 Sustainable Development Goal 4.3, which promotes gender access to higher education. UNESCO aims to widen participation in order to improve social welfare.

The World Bank is focused on utilitarian benefits. In 1999, it announced that knowledge would replace land and labour in determining standard of living (World Bank 1999).

As outlined in the 2002 Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in Development, the World Bank would invest in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – development. Likewise, the Bank has supported research capacity building in Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Nigeria (World Bank 2016a).

The World Bank’s mission for higher education funding focuses on goals that improve the system’s capacity – namely finance, governance and research capacity (World Bank 2016b). The Bank’s policy is centred on helping countries benefit from the increased rate of return on human capital investment within the knowledge economy.

Sustainable development

I argue that education ministries interested in sustainable development and improving social welfare should focus on widening participation. Improved social welfare, not achieving the highest rate of return, is the goal of sustainable development.

Funding innovations within select universities doesn’t distribute social benefits, but rather increases the rate of return within a single institution.

Although research is important to improving social welfare, aid is zero-sum. Therefore, spending on innovating the national system presents an opportunity cost from widening participation. Concentrating resources within select universities doesn’t improve social benefits, but rather exacerbates the education gap.

Ministries must simultaneously modernise their systems while widening participation. To do this they must convince governments and donors that societal benefits and system innovations have an equally important rate of return in terms of truly sustainable development.

Deren Temel is a masters degree candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He studies international higher education, focusing on developing regions.


  • Bradley, N (2013) “Robbins Revisited: Bigger and better”. The Social Market Foundation: http://trid.trb.org/view.aspx?id=981063
  • Childs, Anna (2015) “Why does so little foreign aid go to support universities?” The Conversation, 9 July 2015: https://theconversation.com/why-does-...ties-43160
  • MacGregor, K (2015) “Higher education is key to development – World Bank”. University World News, 400, 2-5. http://www.universityworldnews.com/ar...9152258799
  • Obamba, MO (2012) “Uncommon Knowledge: World Bank policy and the unmaking of the knowledge economy in Africa”. Higher Education Policy, 2 6(1), 83-108. http://doi.org/10.1057/hep.2012.20
  • Teferra, D (2010) “Higher Education in Africa: The dynamics of international partnerships and interventions”, in RM Basset and A Maldonado-Maldonado (Eds) International Organisations and Higher Education Policy: Thinking globally, acting locally? New York: Routledge, 155-173.
  • United Nations (1998) "World Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century: Vision and action”, 1-22. http://www.unesco.org/education/educp...on_eng.htm
  • World Bank (1999) World Development Report: Knowledge for development. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • World Bank (2002) Constructing Knowledge Societies: New challenges for tertiary education. Washington DC: World Bank.
  • World Bank (2011) “Learning for All: Investing in people’s knowledge and skills to promote development”. Education (April), 37-38.
  • World Bank (2016a) World Bank Projects: http://www.worldbank.org/projects
  • World Bank. (2016b) Higher Education: http://go.worldbank.org/HBEGA0G2P0

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