A decisive shift in priorities from basic to higher education for the world's poorest nations is foreshadowed in an independent report published this week with the effective endorsement of the World Bank.
Without more and better higher education, developing countries will find it increasingly difficult to benefit from the global knowledge-based economy, the report warns.
The bank's emphasis has been on primary and secondary education, but higher education is likely to receive greater attention after the report from the task force on higher education and society, convened by the bank and Unesco.
The bank's president, James Wolfensohn, this week launched the report during the institution's Human Development Week 2000 in Washington. Co-chair of the week, Mamphela Ramphele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, becomes the bank's managing director for human resources in May.
The report warns that a chronic lack of investment in higher education is leaving the developing world further and further behind.
Mr Wolfensohn said: "Well-educated people from the developing world can be a powerful force for change, but they need schools and academic opportunities in their own countries. This is especially true in the face of such staggering problems as the HIV/Aids pandemic, and the need to build up basic infrastructure and telecommunications in poor countries. The findings of the independent task force closely match World Bank policy."
Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco's new director general, said that following Unesco's 1998 world conference, the organisation is helping member countries strengthen their higher education.
Komlavi Seddoh, head of Unesco's higher education division, told the Washington meeting: "The stakes are high because the growing divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' constitutes one of the critical risks of the present time."
The task force comprised educational and development experts from 13 countries and drew on commissioned research to construct a picture of higher education in developing countries.
Professor Ramphele said: "Higher education in developing countries is in crisis. It is chronically under-funded, with many faculty poorly qualified and students badly taught. This report calls for a new start. Higher education is no longer a luxury - it is essential to survival."
The report reverses the assumption that poor countries should focus exclusively on better access to basic education, arguing that advanced education is crucial for developing countries challenged by hunger and persistent poverty, environmental degradation and economic under-performance.
David Bloom, Harvard economist and head of the task force, said that for years economists had underestimated the importance of higher education.
"The world has made huge strides in expanding access to primary and secondary education. This effort must continue until all young people benefit. Young people know that higher education is the cornerstone of opportunity," said Mr Bloom.
A summary and full text of Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise is available at www.tfhe.net David Jobbins AP