Higher education is key to development – World Bank

The returns on higher education are growing globally and they are highest in Africa, Claudia Costin, a senior director at the World Bank, told the African Higher Education Summit. There is an urgent need for Africa to build quality and capacity in universities and to create skills that remain on the continent – and public investment is central.

And so it was that a Brazilian academic rang the final death knell on a controversial former World Bank policy widely blamed for decimating higher education across the continent.

Costin, an academic and economist who entered government in Brazil before joining the World Bank as senior director of education in July last year, told the summit: “I was very happy to discover that the World Bank now believes that higher education is central for development. Because being a professor myself, I share this strong belief.”

The World Bank has invested more than US$1 billion in African higher education since 2000, and so its policy u-turn on the importance of the sector has been in place for some time and happened alongside new attitudes towards the role of higher education in development that won out at the first UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education held in 1998.

The World Bank was one of the partners* to the first African Higher Education Summit on “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 10-12 March. The emphatic pronouncement on the importance of the sector by Costin for the World Bank on this historic platform was highly symbolic.

Many of those in the audience had, publicly and repeatedly over the years, said that one of the World Bank’s most shameful policies was to insist for decades during the second half of the 20th century that Africa did not need to focus on higher education but on the school sector – the implication being that Africa was never going to fully develop.

Conditions attached to loans obliged African countries to spend on primary and not higher education, and the result over many years was the degradation of universities that had been growing in the post-colonial period. This was exacerbated by marginalisation of universities by many despotic African governments that saw them as hotbeds of opposition.

But that was then, and now Africa is increasingly democratic, the role of higher education in development is widely recognised – and the World Bank is strongly supporting the sector.

High-level support

Andreas Blom, World Bank lead economist for African education, told University World News that there was “very strong”, high-level support for African higher education from Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice president for Africa since 2012.

“Our vice president believes that fundamental capacity building in Africa is through good universities and that we have to focus a lot on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and on specific growth industries.

“Having that support from senior management is critical in every institution, and he has been instrumental in the World Bank increasing investment in African higher education,” said Blom.

“There is much better understanding now of the role that higher education can play, but it does require a bold long-term vision to say that for real capacity building, we have to have it in Africa. And I think it is absolutely the right approach.”

Investment growing – but not enough

Costin told the summit that in Sub-Saharan Africa, 20% of the World Bank’s overall education portfolio is devoted to higher education, amounting to US$600 million.

“We see strong demand for holistic support across all levels of education, because you cannot have good quality higher education if you don’t have good quality basic education. So we have to have a systemic view.”

On average, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa invest about one fifth of their education budget in higher education, which translates into 0.9% of gross domestic product.

“This is on par with other developing countries, but is not enough – the challenges make this amount insufficient to meet future needs,” said Costin.

“With strong progress in primary and secondary enrolment in Africa, there is an unprecedented opportunity to double and even triple the number of African youths benefiting from tertiary education.” In Kenya and Tanzania, the number of students qualifying for higher education will double in a couple of years.

“This requires more investment,” Costin said. “More funding is also needed to raise quality and relevance and to increase the number of students in science and technology streams – a high priority for most countries in the region – and they require lab-based teaching.

“Lastly, an expansion of postgraduate programmes is necessary to raise the quality of higher education and we are strongly committed to it.”

HE investment pays off

Importantly, Costin stressed, investments in higher education would pay off. Returns to investments in higher education in Africa were 21%, which was the highest in the world.

“But it is also important to look beyond the individual benefits of higher education. Africa needs urgently to build quality and capacity in universities to create a workforce that will remain in Africa. There is a brain drain.”

In his speech to the summit, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan stressed that there was nothing wrong with going abroad and qualifying and perhaps staying for a while.

“But going abroad should be an option and not the only way to get a quality postgraduate education,” Costin argued. So higher education capacity and quality needed to be expanded – such capacity was also central to efforts to transition into middle-income countries.

“If we want to achieve all this, public funding is central. Public funding is the cornerstone of higher education financing, especially in Africa. Kofi Annan also stressed that Africa should be in African hands and public investment is important for that,” said the Brazilian.

“It is important that public funding is not only increased but that it is targeted.” Targeting could be to areas where private investment is not forthcoming, such as financial support for low-income students and institutions serving rural students.

Many countries, including in Africa, had successfully introduced student loan systems that improved access to higher education, equity and co-financing of higher education. “Families and students can postpone the costs of education until after graduation, when there is the capacity to pay because of higher salaries.”

Kenya’s Higher Education Loans Board was a good example. “Nobody should be prevented from accessing higher education because of its cost.”

“Private sector firms is another potential source of innovative finance that needs to be tapped – donations, joint research, consultancies and provision of training to industry professionals can become important contributions to higher education institutions,” said Costin.

This often required universities to become more responsive to the training and research needs of companies. “In some countries it also requires changes to budget practice to ensure that universities retain all the funding that they generate.”

The World Bank’s recent African Centres of Excellence initiative was another example of innovative investment in higher education, she continued, in which participating governments and the World Bank match every dollar generated by the university concerned. Governments should similarly incentivise universities to grow donations and internal revenue generation.

“We are also working with leading African businessmen and philanthropists to raise African business funding for science, through the Partnership in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology – PASET.”

“There is little doubt that we need to have all possible sources of funding, including the private sector – but don’t forget, public funding is the most important and sustainable source of funding,” Costin stressed.

More investment needed

The World Bank is itself a financing tool for higher education, Costin pointed out, and a champion for education in Africa.

“Through the last decade we have been the largest external financier for African higher education institutions. We have invested more than US$1 billion in African higher education since 2000. Our current commitments to higher education represent about 20% of our investment in Africa.

“I’m not saying that this is enough – we need to do more.

“And also better use the investments made, by public financing or the World Bank or other donors, to ensure that Africa can build its future. And its future starts with higher education, with good research centres, with applied science. It starts with building capacity on a continent that holds its future in its hands.”

* The summit was hosted by the government of Senegal and organised by TrustAfrica. Aside from the World Bank, other partners included the African Union Commission, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, Association of African Universities, African Development Bank, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Carnegie Corporation of New York and MasterCard Foundation.