Across the developing world, demand for tertiary education continues to soar. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of students worldwide, who were enrolled in higher education institutions increased from 99.7 million to 214.1 million, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

IEG’s report calls for the World Bank Group to lead efforts to help countries better integrate their education systems with employers. This is an important message as education systems need to provide students with skills which are relevant to the labor market. At the same time, it is important that countries don’t focus on employability as the only success indicator for higher education.

In an earlier blog, Investing in Higher Education for Better Development, we covered the main findings of a recent IEG report that assessed the World Bank Group’s support for higher education. The Bank Group is today one of the largest providers of development assistance to higher education. Over the last decade, the World Bank Group provided nearly $12  billion in support to the higher education sector. Much of this support was directed at various aspects of higher education, such as teaching and learning, higher education systems, skills and employability, access and equity, and research.

As noted in IEG’s evaluation, the rapid increase in demand for higher education raises important questions for developing countries and other stakeholders engaged in the higher education sector.

In this blog, we explore four critical questions and their implications.

What should be the focus of higher education?

A significant driver of higher education expansion is the need for skills. In many countries, employers are demanding that higher education institutions focus more on preparing graduates for the job market. For some, this means shifting resources away from research and liberal arts towards science, technology and other practical skills required by today’s employers. For others, it is more about cultivating a culture of lifelong learning.

IEG’s report calls for the World Bank Group to lead efforts to help countries better integrate their education systems with employers. This is an important message as education systems need to provide students with skills which are relevant to the labor market. At the same time, it is important that countries don’t focus on employability as the only success indicator for higher education. For one, this would impose an unrealistic expectation on higher education institutions in an environment where they don’t have control over the job market. This was a point well made by Eva Egron-Polak, Former Secretary General and Senior Fellow at the International Association of Universities.

How can countries resolve the tradeoffs between increasing supply and upholding quality?

One unintended consequence of expanding the supply of higher education has been a rise in inconsistency across the higher education sector. As more private providers enter the sector, it is becoming more difficult to regulate quality. Unfortunately, many countries have simply not built the necessary regulatory capacity and standards required to hold private providers accountable for the quality of services they provide. This has resulted in the proliferation of so-called diploma mills.

For institutions like the World Bank Group, there is an opportunity to work with client countries to build stronger quality assurance systems, including by innovating in the design of monitoring instruments and indicators that can better capture the desired learning outcomes. This point came across very clearly from the knowledge session that took place in India in the spring of 2018.

Are we leaving the poor even further behind?

As governments increasingly promote private sector participation in the higher education sector, it is going to be important to ensure that access and equity are not sacrificed. Due to the demand surge for higher education, many countries have eliminated universal access to free higher education, which further threatens to deny education to relatively disadvantaged youth.

While there is a recognition that governments can no longer afford to provide free education, and universal free higher education often has some regressive implications since its main beneficiaries generally come from the most advantaged segments of society, there is a need to put more emphasis on how to foster inclusion and access for the most vulnerable. IEG’s report noted that increasing participation was an objective in only 20 percent of the Bank’s operations over the review period (2003 – 2016).  Likewise, IFC operations tended to focus on those with the ability to pay. Impact evaluations show that student financial assistance can be effective in improving transition rates from secondary to higher education, student participation and graduation.

How can we promote a culture of lifelong learning?

The focus of most national educations systems continues to assume a dichotomy between technical and university education with a strong bias for the latter. The reality, however, is that education is no longer a linear path, and students will increasingly cross to technical schools to pick up skills that they didn’t acquire at university (and vice-versa).  Moreover, higher education institutions are playing an increasing role in re-training mid-career professionals. Higher education systems need to be conducive to a culture and practice of lifelong learning.

Read IEG's Evaluation: Higher Education for Development

Watch interviews with Dr. Salvador Malo Alvarez, Roberta Malee Bassett, and with Eva Egron-Polak about "The Future of Higher Education in a Changing Global Economy".

View the highlights of IEG's outreach related to the Higher Education for Development Evaluation.  

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