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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Has Change Finally come to Universities in Developing Countries?

At the best of times, universities are organizations particularly resistant to change. For over 9 centuries, Universities have been doing more or less the same, since the first one was founded in Bologna Italy in 1088. Currently, most universities offer the best learning experience 17th century technology can offer. This is not a typo. It is still blackboard, chalk and paper in the classrooms. And that is when we are talking about industrialized countries.

We have read it before, but some argue from now on everything will be different  because of today's information technology revolution and globalisation. Will the change be dominated by the forces of continuity, or is there a true revolution at the doorstep?

In their report An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead, Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi argue the latter. In the report's foreword Prof. Larry Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University, writes: “Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education.... The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.” 

The report underlines the importance of strategy in a more competitive environment: “Each university needs to be clear which niches or market segments it wants to serve and how. The traditional multi-purpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day.” Here you will find a more comprehensive description of the report.

Given the past track record of implementing changes in a university environment, all this may or may not be true. When we shift our focus to the developing countries, an altogether different picture emerges. The massification of higher-education - shown by a gross enrollment ratio of over 15% - has still not taken place in many developing countries, with the exception of India.

In addition, in most developing countries there is an important quality deficit. Broadband internet is not available to all students or staff, and there is no budget for access to literature database, and other things. Due to low salaries for faculty members in many countries, or relatively low salaries compared to private sector wages for some disciplines, under-staffing has been endemic, thus increasing individual Faculty members' teaching loads and leaving no time for research.

The Times Higher Education Top 100 under 50 years old give an indication which countries have been able to build up a world class higher education structure. This provides many good examples for developing countries, since most do not want to take centuries to build up a high quality university structure. This ranking uses 11 objective performance indicators with headline performance categories remains using the following weights:

• Research: volume, income and reputation (30 per cent)
• Citations: research influence (30 per cent)
• Teaching: the learning environment (30 per cent)
• International outlook: people and research (7.5 per cent)
• Industry income: innovation (2.5 per cent).

Australia has done particularly well in the last 50 years, with 14 universities in the top 100. Countries like Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong have shown the most aggressive growth and development of world class universities.

Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) Tertiary Education
Country Name Country Code 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010
Papua New Guinea PNG 2.2 1.7 1.5 n.a. 2.8 1.9 n.a. n.a.
India IND 5.0 5.0 5.8 5.9 5.5 9.4 10.8 17.9

OECD members OED 28 31 34 38 47 51 60 67
High income HIC 30 33 36 42 53 56 66 72
East Asia & Pacific (developing only) EAP 2 3 5 5 7 12 20 26

Heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) HPC 2 2 2 2 3 4 5 6
Least developed countries: UN classification LDC 1 2 3 3 3 4 5 7
Low income LIC 2 3 3 3 4 4 5 8

Arab World ARB 6 9 11 11 14 19 21 23
South Asia SAS 4 4 6 5 5 8 9 15
Sub-Saharan Africa (developing only) SSA 1 2 2 3 4 4 6 7
World WLD 11 12 13 14 15 19 24 29

Source: World Bank data

In developing countries, the challenge is to improve the quality of teaching and research, while at the same time increasing the quantity of graduates. Papua New Guinea, for example, still has a gross enrollment ratio in higher education below 2%. India has increased its GER dramatically over the last 15 years, and if the higher education bill passes parliament it will engage deeper with foreign partners, improving both throughput and quality of teaching and research.

While university councils are populated by politicians, however, necessary but unpopular measures - such as increase in tuition fees, and hiring of qualified external faculty - will not take place. In addition, these type of councils will not be willing to drive the necessary strategic changes that are required in a rapidly changing environment, with a quickly growing demand for higher education and a desperate need to improve quality. For Papua New Guinea, these issues have been clearly explained in the Independent Review of the PNG University System.

For the national higher education systems, it is hard to envisage how the state can make available sufficient funds for the necessary investments for improving both the quality of education and the quantity of graduates simultaneously.  Mixed higher education systems, with greater involvement of private sector participants will therefore emerge, if the demand for local higher education graduates is to be met.

The answer to the question whether the revolution has come to universities in developing countries is probably "not yet". The revolution will not be tweeted, but it will slowly penetrate all council rooms and classrooms, provided that professional and de-politizised and functional governance structures can be set up.

Many impediments of a practical nature exist to fast change in universities in industrialized countries. In the developing countries issues of university governance need to be fixed first of all, before university executives can develop strategies which will allow these universities to thrive in the new environment.

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