Higher education is key to development – World Bank

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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.

Source: University World News

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