Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Higher education growth - whole regions missing out

On the BBC news website there was quite a disturbing article yesterday (by Sean Coughlan, March 22nd 2011), pointing out that while higher education growth - including huge increases in student numbers - is a worldwide phenomenon, there isn't a single African university in the world's top 100 universities. Now, one might argue that this reflects some bias in the methods used to construct the rankings, but I think that is highly unlikely to explain the findings. For several world rankings are currently published periodically, with minor differences in methodology between them, and none shows any African institution near the top. Moreover, by now we have a pretty good idea what an 'excellent' university looks like, delivering high quality teaching (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels) and research (whether theoretical or applied) of international standard, and it is clear that African institutions are currently unable to deliver this, except possibly in limited specialist fields.

Now, the above article focused on Africa, though actually the situation is somewhat similar across another significant region of the world, namely the Middle East, something I find both sad and puzzling given the vigour of the universities of the Moslem world a few centuries ago - when the West still had little to offer intellectually. In addition, Latin America, too, does not come out terribly well from these ranking exercises, though it's probably a little ahead of Africa and the Middle East.

The interesting questions that come to mind, in the face of these facts, are: (a) Why is the situation as it is? And (b) What, if anything, can be done about it? There is also a third question, liked to the first two, (c) Does it matter?

On question (a), answers include lack of resources, low priority for government funding (many countries placed more emphasis on primary education), failing to follow recent trends in higher education (such as seeking to attract students from overseas), losing good staff to wealthy institutions in developed countries, as well as cultural/political issues to do with freedom of speech, institutional autonomy, and the like. Probably different issues apply to different countries. And the trouble is, even if it is widely acknowledged that good higher education has a part to play in supporting a country's economic development, it is hard to change long established practices and institutional culture. Competition between regions and universities probably helps to exacerbate differences since academic staff as a group are exceptionally mobile, and they are likely to move where they find the most congenial academic environment - this is not just about pay, but about academic freedom, teaching loads, research support, and so on.

Given this situation in the world of higher education, what can be done about it? The obvious answer is, somehow, to throw resources at the problem. More funding would obviously help, but I doubt whether it would be enough on its own. For what makes academic life so attractive (at least for me, and I suspect I'm not alone) in good institutions is the ability and freedom to undertake research along whatever lines one might choose, with little or no institutional direction. This ability presupposes a good deal of institutional support in the form of library and IT services, a decent office, and most important of all, time. Thus teaching loads should not be too onerous, and ideally one should be teaching interested, bright and well prepared students, since that in itself helps to create an environment supportive of research. Likewise, it's good to be in a setting with bright, hard-working and enthusiastic colleagues.

In many countries, traditional academic hierarchies can be oppressive rather than supportive of high quality work, both teaching and research. For instance, I'm all too familiar with universities and research institutes from the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe where, in the past, no one would speak at a seminar until the institute director or head of department had spoken, though privately people usually had a lot more to say. In public, people were nervous about saying the 'wrong' thing and stepping out of line. Such a controlled environment does not yield academic excellence however much money is thrown at it. So creating good universities is not just about the funding, though that obviously matters, but also concerns the institutional culture and ethos. These are harder to change.

This brings me to my last question, (c) Does it matter?

I think it does, for three reasons. First, there is a good deal of evidence nowadays that economic growth is helped by improved labour force skills right up to university level. Increasingly, both private sector jobs and public administration require well qualified graduates to deliver good quality performance.

Secondly, in much of Africa and elsewhere, the best students know perfectly well that their own universities currently operate at a very low level - both in terms of their basic funding, and in terms of their academic standards - and so when they can they go abroad to study, often to the US or Europe. On the one hand this provides access to good quality higher education, but the downside of that is that the process of studying abroad often contributes to longer term emigration. In other words, poor countries lose many of their brightest people, because of the structure of the world higher education system. This is a terrible loss, one that is not adequately compensated by flows of remittances that the emigrants often send back home. As China and India are finding, the only way to stop this process and build up domestic skill levels is through developing higher education at home. For smaller, poorer countries, building up good universities domestically is more difficult, but groups of countries might be able to collaborate to deliver higher quality higher education for their people.

Third, quite aside from the immediate economic rationale, access to quality higher education opens up the world to the young people undertaking such studies. Knowledge and understanding for their own sake are commonly undervalued these days, but for me these aspects of university life are absolutely vital.

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