Brown University President Christina Paxson on Higher Education in the Developing World


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In the 1980s it was considered a given that most low-income countries over-invest in tertiary education. But that tired assumption is being upended in today’s world of borderless universities and globe-trotting skilled workers. A higher education undoubtedly generates a positive return for most people, whether in advanced or developing countries. However, policymakers should heed the warning about not jumping too fast by focusing on higher learning when in many countries, getting a solid secondary education is the key to climbing the ladder toward prosperity. Also, the importance of getting the organizational structure of universities right is often undervalued, with the result that far too many academic institutions fail to graduate people who are equipped to compete in the global workforce, or, aiming even higher, who are qualified to change the world for the better.

These were some of the takeaways I gleaned from Brown University President Christina Paxson’s lecture on April 26 at the World Bank.

Paxson is both a development economist and a high level administrator of an Ivy League school, but she has maintained her excitement about research (indeed her talk cited papers related to higher education, growth, development and migration by Aghion; Bloom and Canning; Barro and Lee, and; Jagdish Bhagwati).

Christina Paxson, who was introduced by Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, covered lots of ground, including a discussion of how the digital revolution is making universities recalculate the value of knowledge. She said that many top colleges and universities are in the midst of brand experiment, whether through the use of Coursera, Flip classroom, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or other efforts involving new campuses and programs around the world.  At the same time, universities are under fire regarding the cost of a higher education and the burgeoning crisis of student debt.

She predicted that there will be a lot of learning by doing over the next five years, and the pace of change will be very fast.

To hear more about what drives Paxson and hear her views on the value and utility of higher education, watch my video chat with her or click on the full video of the lecture.

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Merrell Tuck-Primdahl

Communications Director, Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program

Join the Conversation

Michael Crawford
May 01, 2013

The problem in the 1980's was not overinvestment in tertiary education per se. It was massive rent-seeking by elites through having the state pay for their children's university. Tertiary education was a way for elites, who, at the time, were the only ones in most developing countries whose children finished anything resembling a decent secondary education, to extract resources from the rest of society. Most tax systems were excise taxes on commodities, produced by the poor (Ghana's cocoa boards for example). The Bank rightly opposed these overt transfers from poor to rich. It also noted that many universities were simply doorways to sinecure jobs in public administration--a significant multiplier to the rents.
So, in effect, one could not talk about the value of tertiary education across countries back in the day the way one can now. The situation is quite different now. Regressive tertiary education finance still exists in some places, but it is no longer the whole or the main story. We are having a better conversation today, focused on what TE does for the average citizen. But we should, when we bring in the past, remember correctly why we held our erstwhile positions.