Why higher education is important for the world’s health

In late February, well before much of the world beyond China had recognised the full reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Gates, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlighted the importance of considering the plight of those in low- and middle-income countries.

As those of us in regions with greater resources struggle with the unprecedented challenges facing our hospitals and healthcare systems, we must not forget the tragedy that COVID-19 could wreak on these communities, which could well be worse than what we have already seen elsewhere.

Underscoring the vulnerability of those in low- and middle-income countries, Gates made two important points. First, we need to directly support these countries as much as possible. Second, we must take a longer-term perspective to support their efforts to build stronger healthcare and public health systems so that they are better prepared for the next such crisis.

These messages are important on humanitarian grounds alone. Moreover, the pandemic has reminded us that, in what is a thoroughly interconnected world, our own health and wellbeing cannot be walled off from that of neighbours – no matter how distant those neighbours may seem.

Educating the healthcare workers of the future

But addressing Gates’ second point is even more challenging than it may seem.

What will it take for the less prosperous to build the required capacity of their health systems to protect their communities and, even more importantly, to sustain that capacity? It will take indigenous healthcare professionals – community health workers, nurses, doctors and hospitals and public health professionals – who are renewed across generations.

How can this be achieved? Only through education and training of these professionals at strong post-secondary institutions located in their communities with high quality, locally relevant healthcare and public health education programmes.

And yet, the development of post-secondary education is not a priority for national and multinational development agencies. It once was a regular focus of support in Canada in the days of the Canadian International Development Agency – but has not been for some time. Only Norway stands as the exception that proves the rule of giving low priority to strengthening higher education in the poorer countries of the world.

This neglect is reflected in the fact that, as reported by Damtew Teferra in University World News, “higher education” and “tertiary education” and “university” appear just once each in the 17 goals and 169 targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is hard to imagine that any of the SDGs can be sustained without strong, local higher education.

Investing to avoid more pandemics

As Gates indicated, it is entirely appropriate that international efforts should focus on the current urgent health needs associated with COVID-19. However, once this crisis eases, we must not overlook the unavoidable fact that, without an investment in building higher education institutions, these problems will recur.

Left once again without the healthcare and public health professionals only these institutions can produce, our neighbours in the less prosperous parts of the world will be vulnerable to the unrestrained ravages of infectious and other diseases. As will we.

Building higher education capacity in low- and middle-income countries is the raison d’être of Academics Without Borders (AWB). The organisation collaborates with post-secondary institutions in those countries on projects they identify to build capacity and enhance the quality of their programmes. This work is made possible by the expert consultants who volunteer their service without charge.

While AWB’s work has had an impressive impact, much more is needed.

Greg Moran is executive director of Academics Without Borders-Universitaires sans frontières and a professor emeritus and provost emeritus at Western University, Canada, as well as former provost of the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. E-mail: