03 September 2011

Higher Education in Developing Countries

I volunteered in Kampala in the summer of 2006, and to save money stayed in the mostly empty student halls at Makerere University. I thought I would drop in at the library, and was pretty shocked to find almost no books that looked like they had been published since 1980.

Are universities good candidates for foreign aid? Blattman thinks so;
Universities will train the next generation of Presidents, bureaucrats, generals and business leaders. 
You want industry? Institutions? Accountability? Technological diffusion? Peace? Time for donors to rethink education spending policies in a big way.
Those are some pretty big claims. In a different context, Clemens argues that actually we are lacking solid evidence on the social benefits from higher education;
A broad theoretical literature posits that human capital externalities shape the development of poor countries (for example, Romer, 1990; Kremer, 1993; Lucas, 1988). If positive human capital externalities are real and large, it is possible that the depletion of human capital stock via emigration inflicts negative externalities on nonmigrants. However, these externalities have proven difficult to observe, their theoretical basis remains unclear, and their use to justify policy remains shaky.
I feel that higher education is probably a high risk high reward investment for the public sector. Most graduates probably won't produce large social benefits, but the few that do could well justify the expense. And this pattern of high impact outliers make this a difficult cost-benefit calculation to do.

But will more investment work?

Devarajan points the finger at systems rather than funds;
As my co-authors and I try to show in our paper, the problem is caused at least as much by the presumption that higher education should be financed and provided by the government (essentially free of charge), which has led to elite capture and politicization of the system.
Which is similar to where Pritchett is going when he wonders;
The US and UK together have only 5.4 percent of the world’s population and yet have over half the world’s top universities—ten times their population share—and almost three times as many top universities as all of continental Europe combined.  Why?
So there is probably scope for some technical assistance in thinking about the higher ed ecosystem in developing countries.

But should we provide direct subsidies? How do we trade off investment in primary education, which is probably more directly and immediately pro-poor, vs the long-term speculative investment in higher education?

Meanwhile, students at Makerere have been booted out of halls whilst lecturers are on strike.

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