Task force acts to halt divide

November 19, 1999


The THES reports on two conferences with one agenda - global learning

A task force set up by Unesco and the World Bank to map the future of the university sector in the developing world will emphasise that higher education is vital for low-income countries.

Its report, to be published in detail in February 2000, would represent a major shift in the bank's attitude to higher education if it is adopted. The bank and the International Monetary Fund have been heavily criticised for giving investment in higher education a lower priority than primary and secondary education.

If the bank does shift its approach, it will be a major victory for Unesco, which has argued that developing countries need to build complete education systems, not to play one sector off against another.

In Paris, members of the task force told a briefing session during Unesco's general conference last week that the conclusions were their own and should not be taken as an indication of policy of either organisation.

But one of its members is Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the bank's special programme unit, and co-chair is Mamphela Ramphele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, soon

to join the bank as one of its four managing directors and reporting directly to president Jim Wolfensohn. This means that

the message will be hard for

the senior management to ignore.

Co-chair with Professor Ram-

phele was Henry Rosovsky, emeritus professor of economics at Harvard University. The task force included education experts from 13 countries: Hanan Ashrawi, former minister of higher education for the Palestine Authority; Georges Haddad, former president of the Sorbonne; Carl Tham, former Swedish minister of education and science; and Kenneth Prewitt, director of the United States Census Bureau. David Bloom, professor of population and health economics at Harvard's department of population and international health, was head of the secretariat.

After 18 months of research and discussion, the task force has already concluded that without improvements to higher education, developing countries will find it increasingly difficult to benefit from the knowledge-based

global economy.

"Higher education is not a luxury for low-income countries - it is essential for their development," the interim report to delegates at Unesco's general conference concluded.

The main challenge to the prevailing philosophy at the World Bank and other donor agencies emerges from the rejection of

a narrow and "misleading"

economic analysis using the impact on increases in earnings alone, which the task force says has led to a view that public investment in universities and colleges yields relatively meagre returns.

"As a result, developing countries' higher education systems are under great strain. They are chronically underfunded but face escalating demand (half the world's higher education students now live in the developing world). Faculty are often underqualified, poorly motivated and poorly rewarded."

The interim report adds: "Higher education has the potential to make a significant contribution to development. Across most of the developing world, this potential is not yet being realised."

Professor Rosovsky said: "The time has come to pay serious attention to higher education. If the countries themselves, and the donor community, do not do so, the consequences could be severe." The task force will call for urgent expansion in quantity and improvement of the quality of higher education in the developing world.

While emphasising the role of private partners in achieving changes that the state alone cannot, the task force acknowledges that market forces are not enough. It suggests governments need to be supervisors rather than directors, leaving the search for specific solutions to higher education professionals.

The possibility of greater consensus between the World Bank and Unesco came as Federico Mayor handed over control to Koichiro Matsuura. The new director-general's first key decisions on the shape and composition of his senior management team will be closely watched in the wake of renewed allegations of cronyism in Unesco and the extent to which he continues Mr Mayor's strategy in following up last year's world higher education conference.

A number of national governments including Britain are keen to see Mr Matsuura slim down the management team and take greater control over the core sectors of education, science, culture and communications.

The full report will detail the new realities higher education must address; the benefits of diversification; better governance; access to science and technology education; and curriculum innovation.

Further information on the February 2000 launch available from David Bloom, Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Avenue,

Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

Email: dbloom@hsph.harvard.edu

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