The evaluation found that the Bank Group had a “healthy” higher education portfolio, generally with positive ratings. However, it also found that there is a lack of data about projects’ contribution to improve the quality and relevance of both higher education research and teaching.

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Higher education is central to creating a knowledge economy and it is critical for economic development in general.

However, in most countries, higher education (and especially university education) remains expensive. Policymakers and development partners need to weigh the costs and benefits of investing in higher education compared to any number of alternative investments.

Recent years have seen a large growth in school enrollment, which has inevitably led to a dramatic increase in secondary graduates in many countries. In turn, the demand for university education has exploded.

Coinciding with this trend has been the growing appreciation of the role of knowledge in global competitiveness. High levels of education are assumed to help step on the ladder of increased productivity and growth, and hence help individuals participate in economic growth. This has resulted in growing demand for and support to higher education. Many development partners have increased allocations; in some cases restarting their engagement after several decades.

Over the last decade, the World Bank Group has invested nearly $13 billion in supporting the higher education sector. Of this, $721.8 million was committed by IFC, the Bank Group’s private sector lending arm.

The Independent Evaluation Group's (IEG) recent evaluation reflects a rich debate around the role of higher education in development. Does it exacerbate inequality? Does it improve the quality of economic growth? There are a wide range of opinions on how to ensure that there are opportunities for all to study and the merits of private university education. What is the right mix of investment?

In higher education, the World Bank concentrates its support to larger, research-orientated universities. These are often elite institutions, enrolling top students and leading research at the local, national, and international levels. For example, in Vietnam, the World Bank targeted its support to a defined number of top public universities. Most World Bank tertiary education projects provide grants directly to universities; the World Bank provides a loan to the Ministry of Education or similar institutions. These grants are based on a plan that universities prepared. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) had a somewhat different approach. Much of the IFC’s support was targeted towards “middle-class” universities. These institutions tended to admit students from more disadvantaged backgrounds that presumably would not be able to enter top, elite universities. The IFC provided support to financially sustainable institution with a minimum level of quality.

The evaluation found that the Bank Group had a “healthy” higher education portfolio, generally with positive ratings. However, it also found that there is a lack of data about projects’ contribution to improve the quality and relevance of both higher education research and teaching. The evaluation noted the importance of improving results framework in higher education projects. There was a clear lack of collaboration with other organizations that support higher education development.

Based on its findings, IEG offers several recommendations to improve the Bank Group’s support for higher education.

  • Develop evidence. Currently, there is a small evidence base on what works in higher education. Given this lack of evidence globally, the Bank Group has the potential to become a global leader in rigorous evidence—ranging from system reforms to improvements in teaching, learning, and research.
  • Act strategically. The Bank Group should explore its aims in higher education. Such reflection could consider the inherent trade-offs in supporting higher education—balancing competitiveness with the goal of improving equity.
  • Involve the private sector. One of the major goals of the Bank Group’s support is to increase the relevance of learning for employment. There is a role for private sector employers in Bank Group projects—supporting the development of curricula and improving employment opportunities.
  • Improve the conversation within the Bank Group. Although most higher education projects were developed by World Bank’s Education Global Practice and the Education Unit in the IFC, several projects were financed by other units in the Bank Group. Going forward, these different units should work together to ensure that the projects are consistent and use the best practices.
  • Work in partnership with other donors and development institutions. Most development partners stopped or limited their support for higher education in the past two decades. However, internationally there is a large amount of international cooperation, with support from Ministries of Education, public science organizations, and private foundations from high income countries. The Bank Group should work closer with these non-traditional partners to enhance its contribution and reduce duplication.

Read the Report: Higher Education for Development

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