Syndicate content

Tertiary Education at a Crossroads: Tales from Different Parts of the World

Francisco Marmolejo's picture
Also available in: Español | Français

It has been seven months since I joined The World Bank as a Lead Education Specialist coordinating their work on tertiary education. During this short period, I have met with people from across the globe, read a variety of reports, and participated in technical review meetings and missions with government officials and institutional leaders. In summary, I have been learning as fast as I can, about how this fascinating but complex organization operates, and about its unique contribution (not exempt from controversy) to development in the world.

These past few months have taken me across the world, from Latin America, to the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and Europe, on a journey that has provided me the unique and privileged opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that tertiary education is facing in the world. It is precisely such reasoning that led us, at the World Bank to organize a year-long lecture and panel series entitled “Tertiary Education at a Crossroads” during which we hope to engage in collective reflection on issues and trends in tertiary education, and confront them with an ambitious agenda towards eliminating extreme poverty in the world, by enabling shared prosperity in a sustainable planet.

The first of these sessions was held recently. A diverse group of educators from more than 25 countries analyzed one of the many puzzling challenges that we face in today’s world: the linkages between tertiary education and employability. This topic is particularly important considering that even though there should be a relatively seamless pathway between tertiary education and employability, this route is often ridden with a plethora of potholes.

Recent evidence suggests that a large number of  graduates of tertiary education in different parts of the world will not able to find adequate jobs –or jobs at all. This  is both disturbing and concerning but it is also just one of the many issues that merit reflection and attention.  The same applies to areas such as quality assurance, financing, equity in access and retention, institutional governance, internationalization, institutional diversification, tensions between research and teaching, etc.  

Of course, building a list of challenges in tertiary education is a relatively easy task, despite the fact that each local, national and regional context is quite unique.  But, I find that it is also easy to identify interesting commonalties around the world. 

I see that there is not much difference between students in Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the U.S., Armenia, or Botswana. They are all anxious and disappointed with what they see around them. At the same time, I see them excited about a future in which they can make a difference.

On the other hand, policymakers have their own concerns, which are often quite similar, regardless of which country they live in. In either Colombia, England, or Uganda there is a shared concern about resistance to change in institutions, and competing demands for limited resources.

Employers are in a similar position, be it in Italy, Tanzania, or Chile with frustrations about the existing gap between the skills required for jobs and what they perceive as the limited capacity of tertiary education institutions to rapidly respond to their needs.  But many times, employers themselves have an equally limited capacity to coherently and consistently tell the tertiary education sector about their anticipated needs for the future.

Faculty members from Malaysia, Jamaica, and South Africa share concerns about ill-prepared and uninterested students and the limited attention they receive from institutional administrators.
Institutional leaders from Tunisia, Canada, Vietnam, Panama or Spain recognize their limited capacity to foster change inside their institutions, and see increased and sometimes conflicting demands for action.
It almost seems like, in today’s times “misery loves company.”

No question that challenges are significant and daunting. However, I am an incorrigible optimist. I see positive commonalities, especially in the case of the students. Regardless of their location, they share an exciting curiosity and appetite for new knowledge, skills and opportunities. In Gujarat, India a student from Pandeet Dindayal Petroleum University told me “It is about the opportunity to have a better life,” when I asked him about the value of higher education. “And, it is about enabling those around you to improve their chance at a better life.” Students recognize that today’s world is much more diverse, and that such diversity is seen as an asset rather than a liability. “It is about being able to develop someone’s full potential,” a female student from Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, responded when asked the same question. “Higher education allows me to open my eyes to the world while strengthening my values and identity.”

They express hope for changing the world that they will inherit. “It is about questioning the world in which we live today, and coming up with innovative solutions,” a student from my Alma Mater, the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi in Mexico said to me. “We can make a better world!”

And I agree that all of us can make a better world, and there is no question that tertiary education has an important role to play in making this possible. First of all, tertiary education is a key factor to foster the economic and social mobility of a country. The good news is that now, across the world,  more students than ever benefit from being enrolled in some type of tertiary education institution. Today, there are around 200 million tertiary education students worldwide, in comparison with only 89 million in 1998.  An increase of 124 % in only 15 years!

Also, despite setbacks associated with the recent financial crisis, the economic returns to education for graduates of tertiary education institutions are quite high, as it is indicated on a recent study conducted by the World Bank. Even countries that suffer with the twin burden of a greater fiscal crises and a less diversified tertiary education system show promise as their unemployment rates for tertiary education graduates, in general, tend to be lower.   All of the above requires renewed attention into ways in which tertiary education institutions can become more effective and better connect with the current and anticipated needs of the economy and society. The same applies to tertiary education and employment policies, especially at regional and national levels. As Tony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Workforce Development expressed during our recent “Tertiary Education at a Crossroads” meeting, “more and more policy is focusing on the relationship between higher education institutions and the preparation of the workforce.”

Let me end by reminding us that we live in exciting albeit challenging times, and tertiary education should and can adapt faster and more efficiently to better serve economic and societal needs. It is not an easy task but it is a feasible task. As Paul Valéry said: “the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”



Submitted by John on

As Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln D. Chafee remarked on Monday at the tour’s opening session: “Rhode Islanders deserve a public education system that challenges our students in the right way — with inspiring teachers, clean and safe classrooms, and the chance to succeed in careers and in life.”
Yes I agreed whatever Mr.Governor suggested to the Session.

I understand the need to deal with higher education. But there is a narrowing of the K-20 pipeline as students fail to even reach higher education. As you know in the United States, outstanding student debt exceeds consumer credit card debt. In Europe, students with a degree from colleges are having difficulty obtaining work. In the developing countries, univeristy level education is out of the reach of many.
We need to improve the system so that more students, globally, complete K-12 education.

Franklin Schargel
Former Education Division Chair, American Society for Quality (ASQ)
Schargel Consulting Group

Dear Franklin:
I agree with the concerns expressed regarding K-12 education, and great efforts should be done to improve it and to expand it. However, since more than ever students are completing K-12 education in the world, at the same time efforts should be done to address their educational needs.

Submitted by Dick Jonsen on

Most interesting, Francisco. I am sorry that I missed that initial webcast.
The links between higher education and employment are critical. Even in the U.S., where we think we have a sophisticated system, these links are not always seamless and dynamic.
Too, we need to be concerned with articulation at the earlier stages of the pipeline: the links between higher education and K-12. Increasingly, we hear stories about the underpreparedness of students, especially in writing skills. Since much of that nearlhy 200% increasing in postsecondary enrollment must come from the developing world, those linkages, and the issue of under preparedness, must be especially serious. I know that you will be addressing this in future blogs/webcasts.
Salud, Dick

Thanks for your comments. While paying attention to K-12, more efficient articulation mechanisms would greatly contribute to increase access and graduation rates in all components of the tertiary education system.
By the way, the webcast of the first panel held as part of the "Tertiary Education at a Crossroads" series can be watched at,,contentMDK:23423443~menuPK:282428~pagePK:64020865~piPK:51164185~theSitePK:282386,00.html

Best regards,

Brilliant post! I'm grateful we have people like you at the forefront of advanced education policy. This is a great read, it's very thoughtful, and it is reflective of a deep commitment to one of the strategically important issues of our time. Education is truly one of our most precious global resources.

Submitted by Myrna Miraj on

Lovely piece of writing, at the same time for new graduates the dilemma of getting a job is when many employers only look for staffs with "experience" . When are they going to receive the experience when employers do not want to give that experience to them. Finally, they will just have to accept lower paying job just to get the "experience" that they need. Even those graduates with 1st Class Honors Degree faced the same dilemma.

Dear Myrna:
This confirms the need for more blended programs in which a combination of theory and practice is meaningfully connected and for which students receive proper academic credit. Fortunately, there are very good examples at the institutional level in a variety of countries. Of course, it is not as simple as it looks since there are many aspects to be taken in consideration in order for such approaches being really useful.

Submitted by P.J.Lavakare on

Thanks for bringing the Higher Education scenario in the global fold. Yes there are differences but the common concerns of demand for higher education are seen all over. How each country faces this challenge of the aspirations of the global youth is what the World Bank can articulate in the new blob. I am glad you have not focussed only on the aspect of student mobility, but related higher education to the needs of different societies. Look forward to reading and contributing to this new forum. Good work and good luck.

Submitted by Mohamed Noor Rosli Bin Baharom on

A very interesting overview of the issue at a global perspective. Even as a university with strong linkage with the industry, we still find 'gaps' between our graduates employability traits and industry's requirements. Though we have regular engagement with industry and would channel industry's inputs towards enhancing our curriculum we are still grappling to meet the expectation of industry.
What we have done is to engage the industry in our academic process from the beginning stage of curriculum development to curriculum delivery and assessment. We also have the industry involved as expert panels for curriculum design and to ensure quality assurance of our courses. This has very much contributed to the high employability rate we now have. However, I believe there's much more room for improvement in enhancing graduates' employability to meet market demands.

Dear Mohamed:
Thanks for sharing your perspective and your specific experience. I wonder if you have considered adding more "tracer" studies aiming at have a better sense of the perspectives provided by the graduates of higher education institutions once they are in the labor market.
Francisco Marmolejo

Submitted by tom abeles on

We are planning 3 issues of On the Horizon (see home page) an international academic journal, on the future of tertiary education. The Future of the Academic Journal, The Future of the University and the Idea of Liberal Studies (2014-1, in preparation).

Submitted by Franklin Schargel on


I agree with your comments regarding the increase in the number of students completing K-12, however... Whenever a child fails to complete K-12 education data indicate that they are more likely to go to jail, commit crimes,use an inordinate amount of social services, marry someone who has failed to complete their education, have children who fail to complete school, etc. In other words, complete a cycle of poverty and ignorance. A student who fails to complete their primary education becomes a drain on their society.In the United States, we talk about the school to prison pipeline. As society becomes more dependent on the developing world, the completion of primary education needs to have a spotlight shown on it.

Submitted by Martin Tillman on

I agree there is a definite increase in awareness of the need to consider the linkage between obtaining a degree and the employability of graduates. This linkage is easier to realize where there are student affairs personnel on campuses whose job it is to develop employer relationships and mediate that space between the student and employer while they are in college - and to some degree - afterwards. Career service offices do not exist in most developing nations. However, as my recent workshops with all university deans in Zimbabwe demonstrated, the interest in providing more effective career development support for students does exist.

Thanks for your comment. In addition to Career Services, more work needs to be done in having consistent tracer studies showing more evidence of the performance of graduates.

Submitted by Robin Middlehurst on

Great to see such a lucid account of tertiary education challenges from around the globe, Francisco. The different perspectives on the issue of graduate employability (or even more importantly perhaps, youth unemployment and employment?) are illuminating. Could we add to the World Bank's agenda on this topic an opportunity to tackle the relationships and divisions between 'vocational' and 'academic' forms of tertiary education? I look forward to more of your blogs.

Robin: Thanks for suggesting the topic of articulation between "vocational" and "academic" forms of tertiary education. It is a critical topic if we are serious in widening access to tertiary education with relevance. Unfortunately, in many countries there are significant obstacles for such articulation.

Submitted by tom abeles on

hola francisco,

The issues are many, as you note, which makes it very difficult to develop an international policy within an organization such as the WB and to develop a serious exchange in "Tweet" sized posts in an asynchronous exchange space. I am currently working in East Africa, work in Central and S. America and have consulted in S.E. Asia. I also edit a journal which focuses on educational futures, As you know, there are many development agencies, including OECD and NGO's as well as country based "aid agencies" actively working on this issue. And there are a number of creative programs in the developing countries. Unfortunately, the number of such organizations are many and the number of innovative approaches can probably be counted on one set of fingers. It is unfortunate that the number of qualified post secondary degree holders who have merchantable skills in developing countries are currently unemployed. So, "more of the same and better does not create work but creates unrest in the educated youth. The current direction is not sustainable, no matter what the quality is. It will take imagination in a sector which lacks that entrepreneurial spirit and mired in bureaucracy while claiming to promote entrepreneurial paths. Tom Tom Abeles

Submitted by Gudrun Paulsdottir on

Thank you for this very relevant contribution to the role of higher education. The dialogue between higher education institutions and future employers of their graduates is vital and higher education institutions need to leave their comfort zone and show more willingness to adapt. Adapting does not mean selling out. However, it is equally important to remember that education also is about shaping the global citizens of tomorrow so the generic competences must still remain on the curricula in some integrated way. Higher education institutions have usually more autonomy than they want to acknowledge when it comes to their possibilites/opportunities to change but it requires leadership and that is today one of the weakest points of higher education. It is lacking decisive leadership.

Felicitaciones Francisco por el Blog. Es una oportunidad de democratizar temas de relevancia global y lo más valioso por cierto serán las reflexiones producto del conjunto. Considero que los temas que mencionas como cruciales para la educación terciaria hoy, están todos ellos entrelazados o se trastocan de alguna manera: el aseguramiento de la calidad, el financiamiento, la equidad en el acceso a la educación superior, la retención/deserción, la gobernanza institucional, la internacionalización, la diversificación institucional, las tensiones entre docencia e investigación y la empleabilidad. Por supuesto que hay instituciones en el mundo para las cuales estos temas no son un problema. Pero ahora nos referimos para aquellas que sí lo son. Un avance importante es el hecho de que espacios como este permiten compartir ideas sobre buenas prácticas. El paso siguiente es que los individuos y las instituciones logren influir en el desarrollo de políticas que favorezcan el desarrollo de una confianza mutua entre las Universidades y el sector empresarial, tal como ocurre en países que tienen resueltos los temas que aquí nos ocupan. Cuando las Universidades, los empresarios y los gobiernos coincidan en un escenario deseable para el cual todos están comprometidos, posiblemente hayamos encontrado un rumbo distinto al que hoy le estamos dando a la Educación Terciaria.

Felicitaciones Francisco por el Blog. Es una oportunidad de democratizar temas de relevancia global y lo más valioso por cierto serán las reflexiones producto del conjunto. Considero que los temas que mencionas como cruciales para la educación terciaria hoy, están todos ellos entrelazados o se trastocan de alguna manera: el aseguramiento de la calidad, el financiamiento, la equidad en el acceso a la educación superior, la retención/deserción, la gobernanza institucional, la internacionalización, la diversificación institucional, las tensiones entre docencia e investigación y la empleabilidad. Por supuesto que hay instituciones en el mundo para las cuales estos temas no son un problema. Pero ahora nos referimos para aquellas que sí lo son. Un avance importante es el hecho de que espacios como este permiten compartir ideas sobre buenas prácticas. El paso siguiente es que los individuos y las instituciones logren influir en el desarrollo de políticas que favorezcan el desarrollo de una confianza mutua entre las Universidades y el sector empresarial, tal como ocurre en países que tienen resueltos los temas que aquí nos ocupan. Cuando las Universidades, los empresarios y los gobiernos coincidan en un escenario deseable para el cual todos están comprometidos, posiblemente hayamos encontrado un rumbo distinto al que hoy le estamos dando a la Educación Terciaria.

The global commonalities in all aspects of the education and employment pipeline are clearly evident in the article. Without doubt, a major challenge for all of us will be ensuring that access to education at all levels is a fundamental right for all people. Education must be a basic human right, or else we cannot expect to create a better, most just, peaceful world. Your pulling evidence from your travels that the concerns and fears, as well as aspirations, of students are the same everywhere reminds those of us in the U.S. (and similarly situated other countries) that we do not have a lock on either aspiration or achievement of students. If anything, your article shows how much we all need to work together to create the educational outcomes we desire. Thanks for a great, thoughtful article.

Submitted by Sigamoney on

The big questions I think are: Should universities prepare students for jobs and are academics in touch with the future? In South Africa like many other parts of the world, students struggle to get to university. The education system has a throughput rate that is very low and much fewer students have university entrance passes. Of the few that get to university, many struggle to find jobs. I have no doubt that our government is making every attempt to help students. The tertiary education crisis is of course an international issue and my view is that we need to have this debate in each country. There is much for us to do regarding the development of students, universities and the job market. We are certainly living in different times. Thanks for this very interesting blog

Submitted by Dr Babar Ali Khan on

The situation is more critical in developing countries like India, where funding of higher education is a big task for students. Also govt. supports are not reaching to the needy one. The complete system is corrupt. Privatisation has also not been helpful and the economic condition is deteriorating which has been a major concern for the graduates.

Comment received from Prof. Larry Leslie:

One could summarize your essay by emphasizing that conceptually there there are two goals of higher education: investment and consumption. The former gets most of the attention these days; however, the latter is at least as important and is worthy of more emphasis under present conditions. You summarize what is happening in both dimensions and give encouragement to the idea that there is more to attending post-secondary institutions than financial gain. Well done.

Larry L. Leslie
Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona, USA
Distinguished Visiting Professor and Senior Research Associate, University of Georgia, USA

Submitted by Alvaro Romo on

Great summary, Francisco. Congratulations! These are indeed some of the most salient issues facing higher education today. Now we need to look at the future with the conviction that we can influence that future through innovation and reform of our HE systems.

Alvaro Romo
Secretary General-elect, IAUP

Although it is true that higher education and employment is a common problem across countries, we must remember that appropriate responses are necessarily mostly national and local. We can begin by acknowledging that colleges, universities and schooling systems vary significantly in their structure, resources, and scale. One significant issue facing all systems is the extent of differentiation between sectors and institutions. In the era of mass higher education, an institution's capacity to differentiate itself becomes a major strategic issue especially in the area of employment. As long as the conversation focuses on treating the university as some kind of uniform institution that easily crosses borders, we are really missing the right target. With the possible exception of the most prestigious and recognized research universities, the mass of mainstream higher education institutions should arguably be focused on teaching, experiential learning, professional and vocational preparation for national and local communities. This will only happen with some degree of differentiation and incentives for high quality instruction.

Submitted by Krishna on

The problem with countries like India is that they haven’t updated their tertiary education curriculum since the 70s. Times have changed and we need our education to reflect these changes! Only then will students be job-ready.

Submitted by James on

I'd like to encourage people to consider the work of Professor Reuven Feuerstein who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a year or so ago; his theory and associated programs have enormous implications for poverty, investment & consumption as we move into the 21st century - someone I have read recently describes him as 'a 'bold thinker, able to trace out a new meaning for the word "learning."'

Submitted by Sonja on

The global importance of considering labor market needs and employment opportunities was nicely put forward in this post. We absolutely must look at these when considering new degree programs and initiatives, ensuring we provide students not only with an education in current faculty research interests, but also a valid road map for employment. Lifelong learning is an important skill learned in the tertiary education environment, but education for employment fundamental to life is essential. @SonjaSteinbrech #college

Submitted by tom abeles on

There are some who argue that the post secondary market, as constructed, will increase the fiscal divide, particularly in a world where knowledge and skills are becoming fungible and movable across geo/political boundaries. In the "west", prior to the end of the 18th century, post secondary education was designed to move a select population into "society" and those who studied the skills arena were considered "pedants" to go into teaching and other job related occupations. Post 18th century, emphasis on the need for marketable skills, initially agriculture and engineering, inverted the priorities. Yet, all realized that there were select institutions which offered advantages beyond the practical. Given the ability to move knowledge industries across borders make these latter institution even more important and increasingly accessible to a selective population which creates access to wealth opportunities while skill based education, as we see, internationally, less of a guarantee.

Submitted by B.C.Mehta on

The problems of higher education are manifold: accessibility, affordability, content delivery and the like. Too much emphasis on employability is converting the education system into a factory producing robots and not enlighterned citizens. Leaving the field of higher education to the private sector investment is worsening the situations. Liberal education is beeing neglected. Cost of education is rising so also the burden of educcation loans in India too. Social strife is bound to be the end result.

Good summary report! However I do not think the World Bank group need take the responsibility of the development of tertiary education. This portion should be the responsibility of state government via government budget or private investment. WB need pay more attention on the loan to support basic education, especially those who need ICT equipment investment. Budget application for education needs for remote areas and equal industrial and scientific teaching materials online are crucial for equal rights for education. Nowadays, I will add educational online materials for sustainable development, life style, green energy and infrastructure as basic needs for each country.

Submitted by Lakshmi Narayanan, India on

In India, I can see the cause of this issue is population growth. Because of this, the pressure cascades to the next / new generation for which they are forced to choose engineering or some educational stream which they neither interested nor fit for that. Very poor teaching staff also add more salt to the wounds. The result is half cooked graduates comes out of the high schools and this high competitive society is unable to place them. So, We need to address the core of issue...

The problem with the country like India is actually, the curricullam haven't been changed from the part 50 years, we have been reading the same thing which was discovered in my grandfather ages. Things are changed and along with it the syllabus must be changed.

Add new comment