The World Bank has underlined the role of higher education in rescuing the third world, say Mamphela Ramphele and Henry Rosovsky
Last week, the World Bank's president marked a sea-change in thinking about higher education in the developing world by endorsing the final report of the World Bank/Unesco task force on higher education and society.
James Wolfensohn committed the bank to redoubling its efforts to support higher education, sending an important signal to the rest of the development community. "It is impossible," he said, "to have a system that functions without an appropriate and deep commitment to higher education."
Education is vital to the prospects of developing countries. The poor, by definition, have few resources. First-rate education and health care are vital investments in the assets they do control: their own labour, enterprise and ingenuity. Educated, healthy people do not need to be rescued from poverty. They rescue themselves.
But the stakes are rising. The knowledge economy demands specialised skills. It also moves faster. People must now learn how to learn or they will be left behind. Primary and secondary schools aim to provide students with basic literacy and other vital skills, but higher education offers the depth and flexibility needed to thrive in today's workplace. It also promotes human development by enhancing the life of the mind.
The case for higher education in developing countries may seem straightforward, but it has been contentious. Development orthodoxy holds that investment in basic education yields higher returns than money spent further up the system. Higher education is thus a luxury, runs the argument, that developing countries cannot currently afford.
If this argument was ever true, it is no longer. The issue is not primary and secondary education versus higher education, but rather achieving the right mix among the three levels. As leaders, entrepreneurs and administrators, highly educated people are enormously important to social and economic development. Investment in higher education is strongly in the public interest. Sustainable poverty reduction will not be achieved without a renaissance in developing country higher education systems.
To overcome their serious problems, developing countries need to liberally apply a vital resource - brainpower, not money.
Ultimately, this concerns helping some of the world's fledgling democracies to thrive. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, democracy matters most to the poorest. No famine has ever occurred (or been allowed to happen) in a society where leaders must listen to their citizens.
The problems of the developing world are serious. Demand is rising fast, but higher education systems are expanding chaotically. Low-quality institutions mushroom in the private sector, while public-sector provision suffers from poor funding, vision, management and morale.
The solution demands a holistic approach and a strategic vision of what can be achieved. We advocate "planned diversity" as a third way between central planning and chaotic expansion. Both public and private sectors must be involved in a system that uses the market's energy but recognises the areas where the market cannot deliver: most notably in basic science, the humanities and access for the disadvantaged.
We see the state's most important role as a guarantor of standards. If talented but poor individuals are denied access, the state must intervene. It must also fight to improve lamentable standards of governance in many countries and to boost capacity in the vital areas of science and technology.
Institutions should specialise. Research universities remain important in all but the smallest and poorest countries. But other institutions should not be treated as poor cousins. Centres of excellence can be developed throughout the system - not simply reserved for an elite. Distance learning provides the most exciting challenge to the status quo.
The task force aims to start a debate, not to answer all the questions. We believe that rapid progress can be made, but only with political will, new resources and people prepared to consider and develop imaginative solutions.
At the report's launch, Mr Wolfensohn asked rhetorically why we need such a document when what is being said is absolutely straightforward. "We need it," he said, "because we've forgotten it, because we don't give higher education the weighting that is required." We wholeheartedly agree.
Mamphela Ramphele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and managing director designate of the World Bank, and Henry Rosovsky, professor emeritus at Harvard University and former dean of Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences, were co-chairs of the task force on higher education and society. View its report, Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise, at www.tfhe.net