Rebuilding higher education after war

One of the main roles of education in general and higher education in particular is to build human capital for socio-economic development, empowerment, eradication of poverty and good governance. Universities are places where critical thinkers, government administrators, technicians, scientists, doctors, teachers and civil servants are developed.

Unfortunately, in many developing and conflict-prone countries higher education has been an ignored and neglected sector for decades, receiving insufficient support from local governments and international donors. In addition, in countries that have experienced or are experiencing violent conflict, the higher education sector and institutions often face repression, threats to academic freedom, destruction of property and brain drain.

Without good quality higher education – which is the key for development and competition in the global knowledge economy – countries that are recovering from violent conflict will not be able to move forward, improve the living conditions of their citizens and develop. Quality higher education can contribute to recovery, peace-building, economic development and better governance.

However, despite the importance of higher education, rebuilding higher education systems and institutions in post-conflict societies is not a priority of local and international actors and does not feature in post-conflict planning.

External actors’ key priorities are conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, basic education and democratisation. And if support for rebuilding higher education is not a priority for international donors and organisations, the same is true for local actors, who often prioritise security and self-enrichment while ignoring livelihood and education improvements.

Neglecting higher education

The World Bank report on education in post-conflict settings notes that there is a tendency among international donors and agencies to provide support for basic education while neglecting higher education.

The report notes that: “Much of the energy and resources of the international community have been directed at basic education, while education authorities have been left to their own resources to deal with the needs of the other subsectors. The result has been that system recovery has in some instances been out of balance in ways that will directly affect economic and social development in the longer term.”

Even though the primary focus of the international community in post-conflict settings is on basic education as part of a humanitarian response, it is important to remember that total spending on rebuilding the education sector – including the basic, secondary and higher education – is minimal, accounting for only 2% of overall humanitarian assistance.

It must be noted that many universities from the developed and emerging world, as well as a number of international organisations and NGOs, have been involved in projects aimed at capacity building and rebuilding higher education institutions in post-conflict countries.

Most of these initiatives, however, are isolated, small-scale, ad hoc and short-term, without a strategy or framework that consider the long-term impact. In addition, what is lacking is coordination, sharing of experiences and collaboration between institutions that offer assistance and deliver programmes. Often, this is due to ‘turf wars’ and competition over funding.

A way forward

In today’s globalised world, where knowledge is a key driver of growth, socio-economic development and livelihood improvements, countries emerging from violent conflict need immediate, substantial and long-term support for (re)building and reforming their higher education systems and institutions.

Post-conflict countries and their higher education institutions need to be able to develop university graduates who can contribute to reconstruction and development and the establishment of lasting peace and stability.

Apart from donor support for primary and secondary education, increased support for rebuilding and reforming higher education in post-conflict settings "is key to ensuring more equitable access to better living conditions, increasingly specialised and better-paid jobs, and a more sustainable environment as well as sustainable economic and social development", according to a UNESCO position paper on post-2015 education.

Higher education plays a "critical role in developing the knowledge-intensive skills and innovation on which future productivity, job creation and competitiveness depend in a globalised world", according to another UNESCO report, and needs to be one of the post-conflict recovery priorities.

The reality in many countries affected by conflict and violence is that local higher education institutions are not able to provide good quality education to the population. In such cases, it is inevitable in the short term to focus on ‘intervention-style’ assistance which, in many cases, will have to be delivered by external organisations and universities. This short-term support can focus on delivery of educational programmes by external higher education institutions.

However, in the medium to long run, it is of outmost importance to move away from short-term interventions to meaningful assistance that can help (re)build physical infrastructure, institutional capacity and the higher education sector, so that universities in post-conflict countries are capable of delivering quality higher education to their populations instead of being dependent on outside assistance. Donor assistance will be key to this process.

Most universities from the developed and emerging world cannot embark on extensive projects and assist post-conflict countries to build capacity in the higher education sector without financial assistance from international donors.

In the aftermath of violent conflict, education systems and institutions need to be rebuilt and reformed in contexts where funding and capacity are limited and where institutions are weak. These challenges require long-term external commitment and assistance.

Higher education institutions from Europe, the United States, South Africa and elsewhere can assist through networking and partnering with universities in post-conflict countries and joint sourcing of funding for projects. International partners can also assist through staff exchanges, joint research, student exchanges and development of mechanisms for accreditation and quality assurance.

Apart from assisting post-conflict countries and their higher education institutions as part of academic solidarity and engagement, international partners stand to gain from this involvement.

International travel, teaching and research opportunities will help internationalise their staff and academics who will develop international knowledge, experience, perspectives and competence which can be used in work with students at home institutions.

Cultural sensitivity

It must be stressed that universities and organisations interested in assisting higher education institutions in war-torn countries need to be culturally sensitive in their involvement and make sure that they do not impose their own ideas, values and-or ideologies on the recipients of their assistance.

Instead, they need to fully understand the societies, higher education systems, problems, needs and challenges and work closely with local actors to design, develop and deliver country-specific projects informed by local needs and challenges.

Wherever possible, they should involve local academics in their programmes, thus helping to build local capacity in the process. In addition, external actors need to resist following the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach as each country differs and what is appropriate and needed in one setting may not be appropriate or needed in another setting.

Besides mainstream academic programmes such as economics, engineering and science, it is important to promote programmes that can contribute to long-term stabilisation and peace-building, such as conflict management and peace studies. Peace-building needs to be incorporated into the curriculum in order to develop individuals and institutions capable of changing divisive discourses and contributing to conflict prevention and stabilisation.

This does not mean that other priorities, such as rebuilding primary and secondary education, should be cut down to accommodate rebuilding and reform of the higher education sector. Primary and secondary education are crucial for the well-being of any society, but they are not enough on their own for development and progress.

Higher education institutions are places where the capacity for innovation, the creation of new knowledge and progressive ideas are developed. Rebuilding higher education systems and institutions after violent conflict needs to become one of the key priorities for the international community as post-conflict countries cannot move forward and improve living conditions in the long run without quality higher education.

Dr Savo Heleta is the manager of internationalisation at home and research at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Office for International Education, or OIE, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is also researcher in OIE’s Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World. He can be reached at This article is a brief summary of the following paper: Heleta, S. 2015. Higher Education in Post-Conflict Societies: Settings, challenges and priorities. Handbook Internationalisation of European Higher Education. Vol. 1. 2015. Stuttgart: Raabe Verlag.