Resetting the compass

Resourceful academies in the global South and East have much to teach the ‘developed’ North and West, Sir David Watson observes

April 5, 2012

Source: Rose Barton

There are many ways to do high-profile international meetings, and the method that is chosen should affect the outcome. The annual Emerging Markets Symposium at Green Templeton College, Oxford has followed the model of “locking away” leaders for three days - but with some special features.

The participants commit to studying a substantial volume of analytical material assembled by doctoral and postdoctoral students at the college, to stay throughout, to make at least one substantial input, to listen to each other, to observe the Chatham House rule, and to take away and attempt to implement practical ideas. Several participants have noted that they leave with more sophisticated, and in some cases significantly different, positions from those with which they arrived. Our plan is to emerge with policies and practices to be promoted and pursued in many settings.

In each of the three meetings to date, we have assembled as many as 50 high-level practitioners, policymakers and recent political leaders. The symposia have addressed overarching issues that must be better understood if human welfare is to be improved. Last year the focus was achieving health and human security, especially in rapidly expanding cities. This year the topic was tertiary education, which we interpreted as incorporating all forms of post-compulsory and lifelong learning. Our chair, Shaukat Aziz, the former prime minister of Pakistan, termed this a “game-changer” for emerging economies.

The personal conclusions I have taken away include our collective readiness, after tough discussions, simply to ignore the battle for institutional victory in the “world-class” university league tables. Not only do these fail to measure most of the targets in our sights - such as teaching quality, contributions to social mobility, services to local and regional business and communities, rural interests and links with other public services - but they also have proved powerful distractions for both governments and institutional leaders (who should know better).

Another was the necessity of balancing the individual and social returns on participation and success in higher-level education and training. This also led us to look carefully at styles and means of co-payment - models through which both the state and the individual contribute to the cost of tertiary education - that ensure both personal and social investment in success. A third insight was the challenge of riding with, rather than attempting to get ahead of, the “cloud” of information and communications technologies.

Yet another policy balancing act has to take place between public and private (including “for-profit”) investment. Almost every successful large enterprise we studied was in effect a public-private hybrid, and the emerging countries could teach the so-called developed world a lot about the systematic deployment of the private sector for public purposes.

Not that all of the emerging markets are the same. For example, demography is one of the most influential moulders of a higher education system, with stark differences between the adjustment pressures felt by those nations and regions with rising and those with declining proportions of young people.

It is also important to reflect that the learning is two-way. In addition to these “take-aways” for the global South and East, here are several ways in which the emerging markets are savvier than the global North and West. They do more with less. More particularly, lack of resources is very rarely an excuse for simply walking away from a problem. They use international partnerships tactically, rather than just for reputational purposes. They are more attuned to complex cultural and religious contexts. Their strongest students (and in some cases the generality of students) have better mathematics.

The countries in focus are the usual suspects: the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China), together with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and selected players from Latin America and the Middle East, adding up to about 25. Three years ago, when the first symposium was held, one reaction from potential allies and supporters was: “What are the emerging markets?” Now the discourse is all about how they may come, like cavalry over the hill, to rescue the established markets.

Perhaps most important is the recognition of a common enterprise. We are struggling with the challenge of how best to design, deliver and nurture systems of post-compulsory education that will enable participants to live productive, purposeful, responsible and fulfilling lives. In this sense, the emerging economies are throwing into sharp relief, and with a sense of urgency, questions about equity and efficiency with which more established nations have - not least because of the weight of history - found it difficult fully to engage.

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