Forging effective HE systems for national development

Developing countries face a stark choice between reforming their higher education systems to reap the benefits of a rapidly evolving global knowledge economy, or being marginalised by the new economic world order, says Jamil Salmi, the recently retired coordinator of tertiary education at the World Bank, in his latest book, The Tertiary Education Imperative: Knowledge, Skills and Values for Development.

And the volume itself, which is based on a report commissioned by former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, represents something of a sea change in the international community’s view of the importance of education in development, confirming a shift in emphasis from primary education, which had been the previous priority for the World Bank and the UN, to acknowledgement of the crucial role played by the tertiary sector.

The socio-economic value of HE

Indeed, in Salmi’s review of Castells in Africa: Universities and Development edited by Johan Muller, Nico Cloete and François van Schalkwyk (2017), he comments on how Manuel Castells’ seminal 1991 paper, “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”, which was delivered at a World Bank seminar, inspired a fundamental change in the multilateral institution’s view of the socio-economic role of education.

Salmi notes that the World Bank subsequently moved from a narrow focus on basic education to a more holistic approach that recognised the value of the tertiary sector as an important pillar of sustainable development that helps to create, disseminate and apply knowledge and build technical and professional capacity.

In this context, the aim of Salmi’s latest volume is to provide policy guidelines to international agencies, governments and institutions about reforming and strengthening tertiary education systems, which are defined as those representing “a level or stage of studies beyond secondary education” in line with the definition of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

Using examples drawn from both the rich North and the Global South, Salmi outlines five steps that developing countries with relatively restricted national budgets can take to provide massified, equitable access to a diverse range of higher education institutions in pursuit of their development agendas and the Sustainable Development Goals launched by the UN in 2015.

The book argues that relatively little attention has been paid to the transformation of entire tertiary education systems – despite an increasing focus within the global development discourse on this sector, particularly since 2000 when a task force on higher education and society convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Bank penned its Peril and Promise report.

Technology as a driver of growth

Salmi notes that technology rather than labour or even capital has become the main driver of growth globally. Technical knowledge and ways of thinking that support socio-economic analysis and decision-making more broadly are increasingly prized. Accordingly, labour market needs in the digital era have changed greatly and will continue to do so.

In this rapidly evolving economic climate, alternative modes of higher education such as mass online open courses (MOOCs) and for-profit institutions offering popular, professional qualifications have proliferated. And within the traditional public university sector, traditional pedagogies in which teachers impart their knowledge to students in classrooms, are being replaced by dynamic models – often supported by interactive technologies – which seek to equip students with the generic competencies and socio-emotional attributes that can enable life-long learning.

In addition, higher education institutions are being held to account for their human capital and research outputs through a range of new mechanisms. Student engagement polling and assessments of student learning outcomes measure what cohorts are actually learning, rather than just their ability to pass certain kinds of exams. Surveys on the employability of graduates, for example, through labour market observatories, enable assessment of the relevance of the curricula and skills training on offer.

Accountability has also been increased through popular global rankings which foster greater comparison of how individual universities, and even how whole national education sectors, are performing. In addition, higher education institutions are increasingly subject to government-sanctioned quality assurance. For example, national agencies have been established in an increasing number of countries in Africa (23 to date) for this purpose.

As the gaze of society turns to universities for solutions to local, national and regional developmental challenges, new technologies are enhancing their capacity to respond. Internationally mobile students and academics increasingly collaborate in research across borders, yielding faster and more broadly communicated results. Big data and predictive analytics provide a potentially invaluable early warning tool for improving graduation rates among vulnerable students, and indicate how the relevance of curricula and pedagogies can be enhanced.

In order to quantify the relative performance of national higher education systems, Salmi presents a range of yardsticks, including: enrolment rates; equity in terms of both student access to, and completion of, tertiary courses; actual learning achievements; labour market outcomes; research outputs; and technology transfer results.

Measured against these, developing countries face some crucial challenges including widespread inequality of opportunity in accessing university education; poor academic standards among incoming students; low levels of graduate employment; inadequate research outputs; shortages of quality faculty members; and a broader inability to contribute sufficiently to development.

Rankings, such as those produced by Times Higher Education (THE) for higher education institutions, and Universitas21, which compares the performance of entire systems in 50 developing and OECD countries, indicate that African higher education systems are faring particularly poorly.

Sub-Saharan Africa shows the worst pattern of inequality in the sector, reflecting the strongly elitist nature of its universities, with particularly poor representation of women; a large enrolment of students beyond the carrying capacity of institutions; an acute lack of funding in the public bodies; poor governance; institutional inefficiency; and a proliferation of unregulated private, for-profit providers.

Five steps for reforms

To address the kinds of shortfalls experienced within tertiary education institutions in the Global South, Salmi proposes a five-step sequence for systemic reforms.

First, the political will for reform must be mustered in an ignition phase, which may be sparked by a domestic crisis or a change of leadership; or external factors such as the publication of a high profile report or a poor showing on the global rankings.

Second, a vision for the future of the tertiary education system needs to be defined. Orientation of a system’s growth should be informed by a thorough diagnosis of its current performance in terms of massification; equity in access and completion rates; the strength of the research outputs; and the diversity, quality and relevance of the institutions and programmes on offer, as well as mechanisms for articulation among them. This vision must be translated into a comprehensive strategic plan that articulates quantitative targets and the quality assurance, governance and sustainable financing mechanisms that need to be established to meet them.

Third, a package of mutually reinforcing interventions should be implemented. In relation to improving access and equity, institutions and systems should seek to promote improved academic and career counselling; outreach and bridging programmes to the secondary education sector; affirmative action programmes; and comprehensive measures to increase student retention, including holistic support services.

In order to make teaching and learning more interactive and experiential, the importance of pedagogy at universities should be promoted, including through the establishment of well-resourced teaching and learning centres and, as required, the remodelling of the physical environment to create ‘flipped’ classrooms, where professors facilitate rather than teach, and studios designed to support learning in teams.

Greater emphasis on inculcating ethical values as an integral part of study programmes may better prepare students to become citizens. And training for entrepreneurship and more cooperative learning programmes with industry could bring them closer to the productive economic sectors of their societies.

Incentives for the establishment and-or consolidation of internal quality assurance units in all tertiary education bodies should be offered, and genuine internationalisation of institutional cultures should be encouraged. Regional centres of excellence – such as those funded in eight Eastern and Southern African countries by a US$140 million World Bank credit in 2016 – and-or world-class universities should be established and supported to promote research outputs.

Other interventions include reducing ‘inbreeding’ in academic appointments; and engaging with clusters and economic sectors to help make firms more innovative and productive.

The fourth step in Salmi’s five-stage sequence for transforming higher education systems is the actual launch of the reform itself, which requires great political skill. The virtues of consensus-building and offering appropriate incentives to key stakeholders, such as students, university leaders and academics, are emphasised. In particular, the advocates of reform should be clear about the benefits of the new system in the likely furore over the costs of funding it.

The fifth and final step in Salmi’s formula for reform is to ensure its sustainability. To this end, the reform package should be presented and adopted as a national programme, not a partisan initiative, and should include ‘enabling’ measures relating to governance and sustainable financing.

To enhance governance, Salmi proposes more empowered university boards; the appointment of university leaders based on professional criteria; and enhanced autonomy and accountability within a national system offering incentives to institutions to improve the quality and diversity of their outputs and manage their resources more efficiently.

Salmi devotes a quarter of the new book to the problem of ensuring the financial sustainability of reformed higher education systems, particularly in developing countries affected by the demographic bulge and seeking to reach the ‘Education for All’ goals agreed by 164 governments in Dakar in 2000.

Long-term viability relies first on forging an appropriate institutional configuration, bearing in mind the affordability of expanding coverage. A three-pronged strategy is proposed.

Strategies for sustainability

First, dynamic non-university tertiary bodies that offer relevant, more cost-effective education and training programmes should be incorporated in the institutional mix. These may include community colleges; vocationally-oriented tertiary-level bodies; and universities of applied sciences and technical institutes.

Second, cost-effective distance education modalities should be scaled up.

Third, the expansion of a good-quality private tertiary subsector should be stimulated, although a laissez-faire approach is eschewed in favour of one that provides a regulatory framework setting clear minimum standards; distinguishing between for-profit and non-profit institutions; and monitoring the socio-economic distribution of the students enrolled in and graduating from these bodies. Such regulation is particularly important in Africa where the rate of growth of institutions in the private sector was almost seven times that for the public sector between 1990 and 2014.

In order to support effective institutional diversification, the respective roles of the various types of institutions need to be mandated to avoid redundancy within the system; and barriers to flexible articulation among institutions, disciplines and programmes should be removed to offer multiple learning paths and increased opportunities for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Given the resource constraints faced by most developing countries, governments should also aim to achieve synergies by focusing investment on projects that can benefit the entire sector, such as national integrated management systems.

What Salmi does not address is that while many developing countries rhetorically support moving towards a knowledge economy, they are actually still in an extractive (agriculture and mining) phase and do not in practice support a differentiated, massifying tertiary education sector.

Turning to the nitty-gritty of how to fund expanded higher education systems, Salmi stresses the political sensitivity of introducing new financing mechanisms and reallocating public resources, which are seen as among the most difficult reforms to introduce.

The book considers four sources of funding for the sector: the public budget, which should be more generous; income generation, which should be encouraged; and donor support, which should be coordinated and holistic and create sustainable change.

Perils of tuition-fee-free higher education

However, perhaps the most politically perilous source of funding proposed by Salmi is cost-sharing – the payment of tuition fees by students, which is often staunchly (and successfully) resisted by the students themselves, but which he identifies as crucial to the massification of higher education.

South African policy makers should pay particular attention to this point, based on global examples; while it is assumed that tuition-fee-free higher education promotes equity, it actually restricts and curtails massification, which is the key to participating in the knowledge economy. Massification does not just mean a high participation rate, it also means a differentiated system with a limited number of research-intensive universities.

In order to promote equity, Salmi insists that universal tuition fees, set at appropriate levels, must be accompanied by financial aid awarded according to the principle of equal opportunity. He recommends that this aid should come in the form of loans, including in integrated programmes which may offer additional psychological and academic support to the most vulnerable students.

In order to overcome opposition, Salmi advocates consensus-building that identifies the benefits of this model for financing, which include expanded access; a modernised and more efficient system; and greater equity in the funding of the sector. The last constitutes a particularly strong democratic argument: in the absence of a progressive income tax system, financing of higher education would be more equitable if students from high and middle-income families contributed a larger share of the cost.

Resource allocation methods

Having raised the funds it is important to ensure they are spent as effectively as possible. Salmi proposes four resource allocation methods:
  • • Formulas for funding based on institutional outputs, such as the number of students who graduate;
  • • Regulatory agreements with individual bodies crafted around performance-based objectives;
  • • Financing awarded on a competitive basis for proposals that achieve institutional improvement or national policy objectives; and
  • • Vouchers for students which they may spend on their studies at any institution of their choice (thus returning accountability for the system to its users).
In addition, monitoring mechanisms to enable continuous adjustment of the overall financing of the system in line with political and economic imperatives should be established.

Jamil Salmi, who worked 25 years at the World Bank from 1986 to early 2012, must be lauded for selecting and systematising experiences and evidence from around the globe into an immensely readable and practical volume, that is informed by a deep understanding of both the theoretical and real-world challenges faced by policy agents seeking to transform their higher education systems.

As an agent of change himself within the World Bank, Salmi’s wisdom should prove invaluable to such peers who recognise the importance of forging effective higher education systems for national development.

Finally, publication of this book is all the more timely as the World Bank’s recently prepared World Development Report 2018: Learning to realize education’s promise, focusing for the first time on education and development, entirely neglects higher education.

Mark Paterson is a consultant with the Centre for Higher Education Trust in partnership with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and co-editor of Africa and the Millennium Development Goals: Progress, problems and prospects.

Professor Nico Cloete is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust; extraordinary professor at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and guest professor, University Oslo, Norway.