Universities in developing nations still need support from the Western academy

Despite his stressful sudden exit from Papua New Guinea, John Warren insists that Western universities must continue to send staff to institutions in the developing world

November 15, 2018
People cross a river in Papua New Guinea
Source: Alamy

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a country that seeks to be in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a high-quality university sector.

Just as income was a vital consideration for ladies in Regency England seeking a marital match, so it is for modern societies seeking to fund a functioning public sector; it is vital that citizens earn enough to pay the taxes on which this relies. But unlike in the era of Jane Austen, when even the likes of Mr Darcy saw no practical purpose in attending either of England’s only two universities, this now depends on a significant proportion of the population being educated to bachelor’s or even master’s level.

Many countries – including some that, a few decades ago, were a long way behind the West in development terms – meet that condition. But one glance at university world rankings underlines that there are still plenty of nations that do not.

Such countries have relatively few universities, and where they do exist, they are grossly underfunded and underperforming. Universities are very expensive organisations to run – all the more so when other public infrastructure is lacking and residential campuses are required. Hence, the salaries and resources needed to attract and maintain high-quality academic workforces are simply not available.

The academic standards of students in developing countries are also far below international standards. They may, intrinsically, be immensely bright and enthusiastic, but they are failed by systems of government that too easily enable precious funds to leak out of the education budget and into the bank accounts of the unscrupulous.

Secondary school teachers are even more poorly trained and resourced than academics, resulting in inevitable low standards. Language can also be an issue. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, children are taught in English. But English is likely to be their second or third language. Moreover, the legacy of colonialism often means that rote learning rather than critical thinking is routine.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution thinktank, Why Wait 100 Years? Bridging the Gap in Global Education, notes that some poorer countries “still have average levels of education in the 21st century that were achieved in many western countries by the early decades of the 20th century. If we continue with the current approaches to education, this century-wide gap will continue into the future.”

The task to make up that ground is clearly immense.

For many years, developing nations’ standard solution to poor-quality higher education has been to export students with potential – and probably the right political connections – to universities in developed countries.

Providing postgraduate opportunities for students from developing countries superficially sounds like an altruistic act on the part of Western universities. Sadly, the reality is often somewhat different. International students have become something of a gravy train for many prestigious institutions in some industrialised countries, but it is not always clear where that train takes the students.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, most of the postgraduate opportunities available are in neighbouring Australia. However, the completion rate for Papua New Guinea postgraduates in Australia is no more than 50 per cent. This is because the jump in educational standards is often unsurmountable – not to mention the cultural and lifestyle shocks the students experience. There is a real danger that those failing to thrive become branded as failures on their return home, blighting otherwise promising careers.

The postgraduate training abroad model can also be criticised because the training provided is often more relevant to the host nation than it is to the needs of the developing country. For practical reasons, it is sometimes difficult to address the research questions that are most pressing in the students’ home region at a distance. Unfortunately, this is sometimes used as an excuse by supervisors with their own agendas and ambitions.

For all that, some developing world students flourish in the high-pressure world of top-ranking universities, and develop into first-rate early career academics. Yet, seeing this potential, host institutions frequently encourage them to stay for a postdoctoral stint – or even longer. And the attractions of better benefits and higher standards of living mean that such calls are often heeded. But this raises ethical concerns about the brain drain of young talent away from the developing countries where their skills are so desperately needed.

Students in Papua New Guinea
Protest song: pro-independence Papuan students


There are also profound ethical questions about what to do with those overseas students who don’t flourish. Postgraduate qualifications can be challenging enough for local students, whose first language is English and who have first degrees from similar institutions. It’s no great surprise that many overseas students who lack this foundation struggle to write theses of the required standard. Almost every academic I know can cite examples of high-maintenance postgrads from developing countries.

There is less consensus over what level of “support” in thesis writing and resubmission is acceptable. Many academics have been intensely encouraged by their institutions to give additional support to prevent overseas students from failing. It is widely believed that this encouragement is motivated by the need to maintain funding: many overseas students are financed by studentships offered by governmental and charitable overseas development organisations that might think twice about continuing to send students to universities with high failure rates. Academics also fear being penalised for poor completion rates. And while most supervisors would plead innocent when accused of in effect writing the thesis of a struggling overseas student, many are happy to point an accusing finger at colleagues for having done so.

Those that come closest to confessing justify the practice as a victimless crime. The students return home with a qualification and an education better than they would have received at home, and the funding agencies are none the wiser. If needed, the genuine ability of the student can be clarified in a reference; indeed, I recently requested a reference for such a person from his alma mater. I was told, off the record, that of course, technically, he did have a PhD, but he had received considerable help with his resubmission. Unfortunately, however, such checks are not commonly made.

It is true that the opportunity to study abroad is often seen as a reward late in an academic career, so the age distribution of staff with PhDs in developing countries tends to be the opposite of that in Western institutions. Hence, you could argue that while this means that their home institutions barely benefit from the doctoral education of those nearing retirement, their students also suffer little if those qualifications are not truly earned.

But this would be the wrong conclusion to draw. Universities in developing countries generally have few staff of any age with PhDs from prestigious institutions (in Papua New Guinea, doctorate holders are currently dying at a rate faster than they are qualifying). Hence, possession of a doctorate is a guarantee of secure employment, and this scarcity makes it all the more imperative that they be genuinely earned. Awarding PhDs to overseas students who don’t deserve them ensures that universities in developing countries don’t have the quality of academics that they desperately require. Worse, it teaches those students unacceptable practices: that it is fine to pass students who don’t deserve to pass.

So is there a better way for Western academics to contribute to bringing universities in developing nations up to international standards?

One obvious route is for Western academics to spend part of their careers at such institutions. In my own career, I have had two periods working in universities in developing countries: as an early career academic and then, much later, as a senior academic. These are probably the optimum periods in a standard academic career for making such contributions, but both come with different and significant challenges.

Establishing your first foothold on the academic career ladder can be difficult, so a position in the developing world may be tempting. The salaries are poor and living conditions may be challenging, but relative youth makes the inadequacy of local healthcare less of a concern, and the level of respect you receive is far above anything you experience in the developed world. And there are real opportunities to help improve academic standards from the bottom up, by undergraduate lecturing and disseminating good practice among colleagues.

For those with local research interests, working in developing countries can provide a unique opportunity. Tropical biologists based in the UK would never get the ease of access to hyper-diverse rainforest field sites as I had in the West Indies, where I was able to record flowering every single day for well over a year. However, most academics need access to expensive facilities, such as computers or well-stocked libraries. These are rarely, if ever, available – although as internet speeds improve and open access spreads, this may change.

Lack of adequate healthcare facilities can also be a deal-breaker for those with young families. Financially, a stint in the developing world may not be viable in the longer term, and it can be difficult to maintain a reputation on the conference circuit. But, on balance, it is something I would recommend that early career academics consider, assuming they pick a stable enough country and their research interests can be accommodated. Limited but real contributions to improving education can be made.

In theory, senior academics should be in a much stronger position to effect significant change. This is because while the training abroad model fails to produce academics of sufficient quality, it is even more disastrous when it comes to meeting the crucial need for better university administrators and managers.

In the developed world, it has long since been acknowledged that simply possessing a PhD does not prepare people to run a successful university. Long apprenticeships and leadership and management training courses are required – either that or a high-level management background in industry. But in the developing world, very few senior academics or managers are likely to have any experience of the role in a successful university.

This situation is exacerbated by a lack of understanding in such countries of governance and the function of university councils. If you look at the list of chancellors of UK universities, you will find a roll call of minor royals, celebrities, artists and retired diplomats. The role has become mostly ceremonial, but with an important remit in helping agree and monitor the institution’s ambitions. Unfortunately, in developing countries, chancellors are often political appointments. In Papua New Guinea, an external review of the nation’s universities concluded in 2010 that there was a total failure to understand or operate governance within the sector.

A senior Western academic with management experience could in principle pass on a great deal of expertise in these areas, and effect important and lasting structural change. However, my own experience – as well as that of others that took a similar route – demonstrates that accepting a senior management job in a developing country is a high-risk personal strategy whose benefits to the country concerned are potentially short-lived.

John Warren in Papua New Guinea


There are no doubt some people who will regard the very idea of a Westerner running a university in the developing world as a form of neocolonialism. But having recently returned from being the vice-chancellor of a small university in Papua New Guinea – a country previously ruled by the UK, Germany and Australia – my concerns are not so much that I left a poisonous long-term legacy as that my legacy of introducing basic quality assurance will not endure at all.

Landing such a position is hard enough. They are not always openly advertised. All too frequently, senior management positions are political appointments, with any thought of an overseas appointment being headed off by anti-immigration rhetoric.

If you nevertheless receive a warm welcome, that warmth is unlikely to endure long. Chief executives are not employed to be everyone’s friend. They are paid to make difficult decisions, which frequently involve treading on a few toes. The more broken the institution, the more squashed toes there will be. In the developed world, university leaders are compensated (many would argue over-compensated) for the risks and stresses associated with taking difficult decisions. But those taking on the job in the developing world will probably experience a drop in real income.

Fortunately, money is not everyone’s main motivator. But while dealing with corruption and incompetence will be appreciated by the majority, it is inevitable that those caught abusing their positions feel rather differently, and can retaliate. If these people are politically well connected and the legal system imperfect, it is unwise to overlook the threat they pose. Most expatriates working in developing countries do so under the protection of a larger organisation, typically a branch of government or charity. Those of us working in the higher education sector generally do so as individuals. This is a high-risk game. Legal costs can be exorbitant and large debts can be accrued rapidly.

When I feared being arrested, my wife and I felt obliged to flee Papua New Guinea under cover of darkness – or “under the duvet of evening”, as one journalist recently wrote, as translation and retranslation gave our story the flavour of Chinese whispers (“Expatriate v-c and wife flee Papua fearing for their lives”, News, 30 August). My fear was heightened by the fact that Italian-Dutch academic Albert Schram had been detained and prevented from leaving Papua New Guinea a few months earlier, after his attempts to root out corruption at another local university resulted in false counterclaims that he had forged his PhD. He fled the country after being released on bail.

Too often, it seems that “removing the foreigner” is preferred to embracing necessary change. So I would probably not recommend this option to others unless they had a very thick skin and were very confident of having reliable legal protection.

What if, instead of working directly for a university in a developing country, senior Western academics pushed instead to establish satellite campuses of their own institutions in these countries?

The problem is that such campuses are primarily seen as business opportunities rather than as ways of promoting development. This is why they are usually located in countries already well along the development road. It doesn’t have to be this way, but satellite campuses are complex and expensive undertakings that often fail. Which Western university’s governing council would embrace a high-risk, low-return plan for an outpost in Papua New Guinea?

An alternative would be for Western universities to offer master’s degrees and even PhD programmes via distance learning. Unfortunately, market forces apply here, too, and such offerings also tend to be expensive and not always well targeted at true need.

As for efforts to train senior managers in developing countries, running a training course or two, or offering short-term exchanges, will just provide another travel opportunity for “big men” in such countries (and, indeed, for their Western counterparts). Prestigious institutions would do better to offer long-term twinning agreements, whereby senior managers moved in both directions and worked alongside colleagues in the sister establishments. This would require significant funding support, and an appreciation that the benefits are likely to accrue in the longer term. But it would be worth it.

There is a considerable pool of highly talented people in developing countries who are deserving of much better educational opportunities than the current failed systems are able to provide. Western universities should not allow pride, prejudice or anything else to prevent them from doing a great deal more to ensure that those needs are met.

John Warren (pictured above) was vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment from 2016 to 2018. He would like to thank Albert Schram for comments on a draft of this article.


Print headline: Supporting role

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