The World Bank is refining its approach to higher education elements of its strategy for capacity building and poverty reduction in developing countries.
Academics from developing countries have been wounded by the tendency of the bank and International Monetary Fund to prioritise basic education at the expense of higher education throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a condition for aid.
The 1998 Peril or Promise report and its apparent endorsement by bank president James Wolfensohn was seen by many as a turning point that opened the door to overdue recognition of the capacity-building function of universities in developing countries.
But hostility is still deeply entrenched despite the bank's increased commitment to a systems approach to reform.
Toby Linden, a senior education specialist at the bank, said: "There are strong interrelationships between the different parts of an education system - to achieve universal primary education you need secondary and tertiary education."
Rates of return on investment in higher education - one of the issues that antagonised developing countries - are likely to have a lower profile than before.
Mr Linden said: "Higher education contributes to the social good and citizenship - these are perfectly legitimate and should be considerations that are part of the discussion. But the (economic) rate of return does not attempt to capture them."
The bank's critics remain unsure of the extent of its conversion. Zulfiqar Gilani, vice-chancellor of the University of Peshawar, said: "The bank seems to have rather belatedly recognised that higher education is necessary for democracy, development and poverty reduction. However, it seems that there isn't any clarity as to how much money, if any, they will put aside for enhancing higher education."
Tariq Banuri, senior research director at the Tellus Institute in Boston, said: "The bank appears to wish to create a legitimacy for itself by suggesting that it has something to offer in areas that are likely to be of political importance."
He said he had reservations about the value of the bank's expertise. He said: "Its staff are competent and professional but it is based very narrowly in neo-classical economics and tends to view every problem through the prism of costs and benefits and economic growth. Its expertise is too expensive - I can get the same or better quality of experts in Pakistan for $100 [£70] when bank costs, which ultimately have to be paid by my country, are above $1,000 a day."
Global allies seek to dilute West's influence
Academics from the developing world are setting up a network dedicated to reform of their higher education systems free from western domination, writes David Jobbins.
The idea emerged from a seminar in Bath on the progress of implementation of the World Bank-Unesco task force that produced its Peril or Promise report in 1998.
Unesco is considering a biannual gathering of higher education specialists to give impetus to reform. Supporters of the South-South Higher Education Reform Network are seeking to dilute the developed world's influence on the process.
A draft statement of aims says: "A central component of the strategy to promote change is to create, nurture and strengthen communities of change at institutional, national and global levels.
"Many of us are involved in a variety of networks of this type at national and/or institutional levels... The time has come to bring together a community of change at a global level as well."
The network will enable isolated administrators and academics to share information about processes of change in higher education systems in developing countries, promote research and function as a cradle of social entrepreneurship and touchstone of ideas. It will even out marked differences in standards of conduct for institutions of higher education, scholars and teachers, policy-makers and financial donors.
Organisers have given themselves until the end of June to set up the basic network. Tariq Banuri, senior research director at the Tellus Institute in Boston, said: "The network is meant to bring together a global community of change. The most relevant attribute is not where people come from - North or South - but what they are committed to. Its core will be those committed to particular institutions or systems rather than those for whom these might be mere objects of study."
Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, added: "We in the developing world want to be in the driver's seat of reform in higher education. Only by doing so shall we own the transformation."
Peril and Promise details: www.tfhe.net