Tertiary Education: Blind Spot or System Failure?


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A comment I posted on Chris Blattman’s blog on the problems with Africa’s higher education was picked up in a lively discussion on the Roving Bandit blog (“Probably the best economics blog [previously] in Southern Sudan”). 

First, for those who are interested in my paper with Celestin Monga and Tertius Zongo on “Making Higher Education Finance Work for Africa,” here it is

Second, I would like to hear people’s views on the issue raised:  Is the poor state of African higher education the result of neglect (“blind spot”) by donors, who emphasized primary education, or is it because the presumption that higher education should be financed and provided (largely free of charge) by the government led to “government failures”—where only the elite got access to the free university education, and the universities themselves became politicized?


Shanta Devarajan

Senior Director, DEC and Acting World Bank Group Chief Economist

Join the Conversation

September 07, 2011

My first question how do the only the elite get access to "free education"?
If financing education for a country is a problem make apartment style residences for teachers as well as their families, provide food, other resources, pay them a moderate stipend for teaching in order to save so that students can all receive a formal education. I am under the impression if you are hungry, poor, famished, desire to work, and want to contribute to your environment this will not be a problem it will be a solution to an even bigger problem. Free education should be an entitlement to a country's citizens. If some of these same citizens deem it so then they have the right to start privately funded universities. If there is an issues about retaining serious, dedicated students whom would be an asset to society test them or put them through an intermediate learning program to make sure they are ready and up to the task. This education could be a summer program or a load of courses designed to assist and seek out those who will benefit the most from a formal education. People who seek knowledge seek with their hearts and follow through with a formal education. If the people who are running your school system are people who first seek tangible things and profit you will have uneducated and misinformed students. Education that is free should be just that free from the confines of a social caste system. It should also be free from corruption and from being perverted in the ranks; this means anyone that is not dedicated to seeing all students involved and growing should not be in an authoritative role. This will allow the right environment to be facilitated so that students can be scholars and take on a new way of life. Education becomes part of who you are not just what you do. Without understanding and having a common goal and agreeing on methodology there will be issues in facilitating any environment. Agreement, aligned goals, provision or creation of resources, clearly defined methods, and a conducive environment will do wonders for anyone as many studies, philosophers, teachers, followers and leaders have shown. Educating one's people and making the most of the whole the least is the path to a nation's true wealth and preservation. No student can learn without a master and no master can teach without a student we are all equal.

Alec Gershberg
September 07, 2011

shanta, i think one overlooked issue is the obsession with viewing "the education system" as a whole. meaning that there is this contained unit of primary, secondary and tertiary education. this leads inevitably to a focus on what i consider a false tradeoff, i.e. compulsory education versus tertiary education, and all the "rates of return" arguments that i am not sure have lead us anywhere. if you start to weigh investment in tertiary education versus other parts of the budgets or sectors (for instance, defense spending), it can be quite instructive. in short, i would like to see a greater consideration of higher education as it's own sector, with inputs to and from basic education, industry, governance, rule of law, etc etc.

thanks for asking. hope you are well.


p.s. i think it would be interesting to compare countries in which there is a separate ministry of higher education to those in which they are all together, although that is not a perfect separation (or even a desired one) from the kind of thinking i note above

September 07, 2011

This reminds me of a paper " Education and Employment in Developing Countries" by Edgar Edwards and Michael Todaro where they argue that investment in education is an investment in idle human resources. The paper must be like 30 years but is more relevant now where they challenge the notion that investment in education in abundance beyond literacy is an unmitigated social good and an engine to development. This is because of the growing open unemployment in developing countries yet the education levels are growing.

Most donor agencies together with the government make the mistake that as long as there is demand for education, then it justifies them putting more universities and tertiary institutions. The problem is that after some extent education at some level does not necessary increase productivity!

September 07, 2011

The factors are 1. Nepotism, 2. Poor scholarship on the part of the Lecturers and students. 3. Poor funding, 4. Abysmally low research funds. 5. Appointment of VCs and key officers on quota system basis. 6. Societal craze for paper qualification, 7. Ethnic Balancing, 8. Poor infrastructure, 9. Rigid and non responsive curricula, 10. Poor town-gown relationship, 11. Corruption, 12. Exam malpractices, 13. Poor governance.

September 07, 2011

Dear All
From my experience in developing countries, as well as short visits to Uganda, basic education is still play an important role in welfare of both individual and nation as a whole. However, from the experience of East Asian countries as far as my reading goes, the investment on education can have a positive impact on economic development, only when the system is designed to produce human capital needed for the labour market to function well. Therefore, education policy makers have to be aware of both the current labour market and the vision of the future where our countries want to go and link education policy towards producing human capital needed for the future labour labour. Therefore, avoiding to pre-judge what level and type of education should be prioritized.

September 08, 2011

The education system is broken into parts but is still a collection of parts that make the whole. When one part does not work the whole becomes ineffective. The real problem is that donors focus on 'pockets' of the education sector & assume that there will be change that leads to real economic and social change. That is a sad fantasy and will never happen. I always say when you want to see change the work like change is what you want to see. I see many governments investing money into primary education initiatives and some secondary education and other tertiary level initiatives. The problem with this is the lack of focus which leads to ineffectiveness. Education needs to be looked at from a value chain perspective. If any one part is ineffective it means the whole is ineffective in that it doesnt achieve desired outcome- the production of young adults who can compete in and comeplement the world economic; social and other system. The solution lies in consolidating efforts and focusing the models which are used to implement change across the board. Isolating one single tier of the system cannot bring about the necessary change.

Dany Jaimovich
September 08, 2011

Dear Shanta,

as someone that have been very concern thinking about how African countries can have better Universities, I welcome your paper a lot.

Coming from a country considered a serious candidate to be "developed", Chile, where in this moment the whole tertiary educational system is under fire by most of the society, I would like to share some "comparative thoughts".

While I tend to agree with you that introducing "cost sharing" of higher education can be a good principle in order to reduce the financing problem and reduce some regressive subsidies, I doubt that this can be effectively implemented. When higher education went from free to paid in Chile (around 30 years ago), never really happened that fees from the rich when to scholarships to the poor. The general improvement in living conditions made a lot of people go to the university, and the Government answer was giving subsidized credits to those that couldn't afford the fees. The result was a skyrocket increase in fees, now the highest in the world. The big problem in a system with differentiated fees is to identify the “real poor”, something I doubt can be done effectively in Africa. The ideal for me is that the rich get properly taxed and then everyone pays small fees in a University funded with these taxes. Since this is not feasible in Africa, a system that combines (small and regulated) direct fees + credits + scholarships + help to prepare examination tests is the best…. I know, difficult to implement as well.

In terms of the contents, I tend to disagree that the Anglo-Saxon tertiary system of education is what Africa needs. While I think this is the best for a country like Chile, where we need professionals with adaptability and mobility, capable to understand the general picture and applied in different fields, we can do that because we have a critical mass of very specialized and high qualified professionals like engineers, lawyers, physicians, etc… this clearly not the case in Africa. There is the need to train these professionals, requiring 4-5-6 years of specialized studies, particularly because few of them can have the luxury of affording a master degree (even less a PhD) after 4 years of a “general” bachelor. Instead, I think technical institutes that allow getting a degree in a couple of years should be promoted in parallel with universities that offer the very specialized degrees. Also, since most of the people in Africa have some kind of “profession”, with knowledge acquired by practice, institutions that can certify that a person have determined skills and knows the techniques required to perform determined jobs can be a good solution for workers.

Sunusi Yakubu
September 08, 2011

I think the whole problem centered around Poverty and Ignorance.

Abiodun Omotoso
September 09, 2011

Most african government neglet public structures and maintenance culture

Tom McDonough
September 11, 2011

One phenomenon I notice here in Nigeria is a proliferation of tertiary institutions. In the 60s there were 3 universities and all of them were prestigious. Now, each state wants a federal university and its own state university. 20 years ago the states were cut up to form the existing 36 states and some of these new states are still building out their state universities (all underfunded of course).

There just aren't enough good teachers to go around. The quality is dissipated and it shows itself in grads who are not very well educated. I suppose this will work itself out over time as these institutions grow. You have to start somewhere. Someday some of these institutions will take their place besides the best universities in the world.

September 12, 2011

Sadly your paper is in a proprietary journal that charges $32 to access your article. This seems a great pity given the importance of this discussion. No doubt you are working on a nice 4-page summary brief of you paper that practitioners can use to engage policy makers...

If I were able to actually read your paper, I suspect it would confirm that your findings apply not just to Africa. The tertiary education system in the Philippines is plagued by an extremely poorly performing state university and college (SUC) system that permits any member of Congress to file legislation establishing a SUC with the associated financial bill passed to the state. The potential for mutual back-scratching - I'll support your SUC if you support mine - has led to a proliferation of institutions that are a drag on the public purse, contribute marginally to educational outcomes and churn out graduates unable to secure sustainable employment. Time for a change and not just in Africa...

September 23, 2011

Hi Peter,

Any nation which is not educated will never develop, it is that simple. Let us take any developed nation in Europe say Germany with a literacy rate of 99%. Stop sending 40% of German kids to school from today and tell me which kind of unemployment rate you will have after 21 years. Literacy rates of 60% are common among developing nations and that is why they will never have jobs. Growing education levels is not the cause of unemployment, actually it will reduce it over time.



August 10, 2012

I have been concerned about the lack of sustainibility in development projects and programmes in my country, Ghana. thus between 2003 to 2006 put my shoulders to the wheel to find out the numerous 'whys' that are begging for anwers, fifty years after independence. some include,
'why did we have to divest over 400 of state institutions?
Why are we very quick to abandon one project or facility for another, whiles insatiably craving for new and modern ones that we cannot maintain for ourselves, let alone produce?
Why do we import all manner of ideas and baggage to create more problems for ourselves?
Why do we lack sustainability and maintenance culture in our national effort?
Why do we prefer things that are foreign and are we quick to accept them rather than those we are able to do ourselves?
And why do we believe Ghanaians perform better in foreign lands than at home?
Why has fuel (petrol) unnecessarily become such a political commodity in Ghana?
Why do government workers always believe the take-home-pay cannot take them home? Is this belief totally true?
Why has education not been able to provide the needed solution to our problems?
Why does a vast majority not believe in the capacity of Ghana and themselves?
Why has the capacity to feed ourselves remained so elusive?
Why have we failed to make the needed impact in thinking local and acting global?
Why do we have weak state institutions?
Why does it take the Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service over two years to pay newly trained teachers?'
My study revealed that we lack a socio-culturally defined INTENT for education. this lack is the bane of our woes, and the woes of most countries that had ever been colonised. the content od education do not have the capacity to produce the human capital that has the capacity to address releveant issues within the socio-cultural context.
this lack has build attitudes that do not inure to sound development. thus no matter the amount of money that donors and governments pump into education, we shall only produce human capital that cannot rise up to our developmental challenges.
can you imagine the billions of dollars that have gone down the drain since independence in each independent African country? this is os because there is a major socio-cultural gap that we hace not found to address.
to answer this, We designed a training tool called, 'THE BACK TO ROOTS PROJECT' aimed at addressing this project. the pilot phase was undertaken between 2007 and 2008 with resounding success, with grant support SPPED GHANA funded by DANIDA and GTZ.
it is clear that what we call education is really miseducation. this is because education must be able to produce graduates who are challenged to address local developmental challenges. but this is not the case with us. the more one gets educated, the more the one shuns the rural he comes from with the complaint that there too many challenges there. thus they are mainly rushing to the urban centres. the educational systems need re-focus to deal with fundamental challenges with our development on which foreign prescription can be well suited to sit on. until that is done, we shall keep filling the passages with lamentations that we think are solutions our developmerntal challenges.
i will be glad to share more on this with whoever will be interested.