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THE conventional wisdom has shifted – again. In the postcolonial beginning, it was assumed that science was everything. Underdeveloped countries lacked science and technology above all, and, hence, what was needed to counter years and centuries of backwardness was large doses of S&T. As Nehru famously said, ‘India, with all her many virtues did not develop [modern technology]. It became a weak country because of that.’1 And as was often the case in those early years, India both made this case strongly and became a prime example of it.

The IITs, to name one outstanding example, came out of this common sense vision of why the past had happened the way it did, and what was needed to correct it. Countries poured scarce resources into tertiary education, especially technical education, believing that the wealth which would be produced by the engineers and scientists who came out of these institutions would increase national income substantially, income that would trickle down in various ways to enrich the country as a whole. Investment in higher education was one of a piece in investment in dams and steel mills: investment for a modern future.

The tide turned two decades or so later when the orthodoxy in development thinking shifted emphasis to primary education. Based on empirical research that showed that the impact in terms of an individual’s future income, health and other measures of wellbeing substantially improved with access to primary education, or more accurately basic literacy, international agencies and ministries of education turned away from funding higher education institutions to supporting primary education. Primary education benefited the poor directly while higher education benefited undeserving middle classes and elites, so the argument went; from a social investment point of view, a rupee spent on primary education returned much more than the same rupee spent subsidizing university education.



In retrospect we can also note that this moment coincided with the victory of a cost-benefit-style calculus that measured development in terms of the individual’s net future worth in market terms, versus the ‘greater social good of the nation’ argument typical of the period soon after Independence. It probably didn’t harm this view that the late 1960s were marked by major student unrest all over the world – from Mexico City to Tokyo to Calcutta. With universities in flames, investment in primary education seemed a safer bet for rickety governments.

It seems that now the wheel has once again turned full circle and higher education is back on the international development agenda. Two recent reports offer new rationales for a renewed emphasis on higher education in developing countries: first the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR 1998/99), ‘Knowledge for Development’;2 the other is the report of the Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries (TFR), jointly convened by the World Bank and UNESCO.3 Even though both reports support the strengthening of higher education, it is clear that this coincidence is not a return to the past and, second, the message conveyed by these reports differs in important respects. In what follows I will outline some key aspects of these reports and offer a few thoughts on them.



Not surprisingly, the key word in both reports is knowledge. This is in keeping with the prevailing metaphor of our times, i.e., the emergence of a global information society where knowledge is sovereign. The term, however, means quite different things in each report. In the WDR, the authors cut straight to the chase when they identify two sorts of knowledge and two related sorts of problems that are critical for developing countries: (a) knowledge about technology or ‘know-how’, the absence of which leads to knowledge gaps, and, (b) knowledge about attributes, the absence of which leads to information problems. Absence of know-how means just that you cannot do something you would like to because you do not know how. Knowledge about attributes is the ability to distinguish between different things, from the ‘quality of a product [or] the diligence of a worker.’4 Each problem is in turn related to institutional absences. In the case of know-how gaps, there aren’t enough local research centres and science and technology training; in the case of attribute knowledge problems, the issue is more the absence of institutions that set standards and ‘facilitate the flow of information essential for effective markets.’5

The solution offered by the WDR to obtain know-how is: ‘Do not reinvent the wheel, acquire technology from abroad.’ For this of course there needs to be investments in the ability to absorb knowledge, or education and its infrastructure. And this is where the first break with the orthodoxy of the past is most apparent. ‘Basic education... should not monopolize a nation’s attention [if it is to] become a player in global markets.’6 Higher education offers the skills and training to produce people who can ‘monitor technological trends, assess their relevance to the country’s prospects, and help develop an appropriate technological strategy.’7 But in which areas should training be concentrated? The answer is clear – to be a ‘player in global markets’, scientific and technological training is what counts.



Following this sage advice, the report proposes competition between universities (defined as institutional providers of advanced skills) to respond better to student demands and adapt better to changing technologies. To continue to be relevant, universities should forge closer ties with industry. And finally, a role for government – since economic analysis shows that there will ‘naturally’ be under-investment in research and training, educational market failure in other words, the state should subsidize the training of students in technical fields.

This narrow economistic view of higher education is typical of the Bank – indeed most developmental – prescriptions and is problematic for a number of reasons. Competition between universities to respond better to student needs is all very well when curricula have not been changed in a eons, as in some Indian universities. However, we are also assuming that those ‘demanding’ knowledge (students) know best what fields are likely to produce the largest payoffs in the long run. Two problems arise – inevitable lags in information which mean that while students seek training in the fields that are hot at the time they enter colleges, there is little guarantee that there will continue to be a demand for that field when they graduate.



The example comes to mind of the US computer science students who were assured, quite incorrectly as it turned out, that AI (artificial intelligence) was the ‘next next’ thing in the mid-1980s. Likewise, it remains to be seen if the boom in demand for Indian computer engineers survives the aftermath of the Y2K boom. The second is the inevitable oversupply that arises in some fields at the expense of others – individually rational choices leading to socially negative outcomes. A world filled with scientists and engineers, to the exclusion of historians, philosophers and scholars of literature – a brief visit to Silicon Valley demonstrates vividly what that future might look like – is not simply an aesthetic nightmare, it produces a society that will be deeply misinformed about its future and past and quite unable to imagine what a good society should be.

This scenario might be said to be already present in Bangladesh which has experimented with private, for-profit colleges for a decade now. Those who enrol in the humanities and social sciences (other than economics and anthropology) are looked down upon, tend to be students who could not get admission elsewhere, and are unlikely to carry on the traditions of scholarship in these fields.

As far as interaction between knowledge sectors and private industry is concerned, what might be expected? India has a long history with the CSIR system, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of providing industry with scientific and technological input. It is no secret that few CSIR labs have performed according to expectations, and few private industries have taken the trouble to seek out indigenous or local technology, preferring above all to import or produce on license, despite foreign exchange restrictions and higher costs. And this is the larger problem with the World Development Report’s prescriptions. While they properly focus on the acquisition, absorption, and communication of knowledge, noticeably missing is any meaningful discussion of the production of knowledge.8



If a report like this is to be of any long term use what is surely needed is some idea about how knowledge came to be the sign of the times, how research and development translates or is converted into wealth, and how countries can build into their knowledge systems the likelihood of becoming something other than consumers of knowledge produced elsewhere, i.e., Japan and the West. This absence points to the greatest weakness of ‘knowledge for development’. There is a status-quo mentality built into the entire report, an assumption that the lines between North and South are fixed and unchanging. All that can be done is to ameliorate the position of those less well-off so that they do not fall too far behind the stronger and act as a drag on the system.

Notwithstanding the fact that the same World Bank (along with UNESCO) convened the Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries, the reports read very differently. Unlike the anonymous format of the WDR, the Task Force Report is associated with identifiable people: the 14 member committee was co-chaired by South Africa’s Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Harvard’s Henry Rosovsky. Two South Asians served on the task force, Babar Ali, pro-chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and former Indian finance minister Manmohan Singh. We are struck by a statement that jumps out in the introduction: ‘The task force believes that social returns to investment (in higher education) are substantial and exceed private returns by a wider margin than previously believed.’9



In laying out its position so clearly, the task force takes a position against the economistic approach to evaluating higher education. While it is phrased so as to argue that what was missing from previous analyses of the problem was simply a better understanding of the ‘social returns’ to investment in higher education, the content of the report suggests a broader purpose and vision.

In marked contrast to the vague generalizations and status-quo orientation of the WDR, the Task Force Report seeks not only to promote the conditions under which the production of knowledge might be possible, but exhibits an understanding of the place of knowledge in modern societies. It makes the point that advancements in electronics, computerization and miniaturization have allowed the transformation of ‘old machines into smart ones,’10 permitted the revolution in information systems, from payrolls to database management, and facilitated the introduction of computer controls and robotics in traditional manufacturing settings. Faster and cheaper communications technologies have demolished the old adage that ‘location, location, location’ was the supreme criterion for retail sales, while easier access to more information makes monopolies less likely and allows for greater choice in decision making. New knowledge in the science of materials, especially plastics, silicon-ware and ceramics, have made possible new products and improved the quality of old ones.



These technological transformations make the case that greater scientific and technical training is necessary to create a workforce in order to cope with and participate in these new industries. But there is a significant downside to this new economic structure, the report notes, which is worth pointing out because it undermines the once-assumed (and only) leverage of the latecomer. While ‘designing and marketing the best computer operating system in the world is enormously lucrative, the second and third best systems are far less profitable. This would surely not apply in the case of steel mills, oil refineries, or food processing plants. The winner-take-all character of investment in knowledge demands a high level of existing knowledge and skills even to enter the fray.’11 To extend this insight, we may note that the importance of industry-wide standards in the new economies where we have seen market power (e.g., Microsoft Windows12) can trump quality (e.g., VHS over Beta video). In simple terms, the ability to establish an industry-standard platform – which is where the real money is – is most closely correlated to corporate origins, i.e., to be based in a country which is already economically powerful.



The Task Force Report identifies major structural changes affecting our understanding of international higher education in the last fifty years. These include expansion, or the enormous increase in the demand for higher education; differentiation, or the proliferation of institutions of higher education beyond the traditional university; and, the knowledge revolution. Expansion is an outcome both of increased enrolment in primary and secondary schools and a secular rise in the numbers of young people in developing countries, as well as growing awareness of the pecuniary advantages of higher education.

Differentiation has been around us for a while, but has not always been conceptualized as part of a system of higher education. All over the world we can see the growth of open universities, private colleges, religious colleges, professional schools, technical training centres and business management institutes. Some of these are accredited, others fly-by-night; some profit-oriented, others associated with philanthropies and trusts; still others are a mix between these.

Finally, the knowledge revolution, or more accurately, the rate of change of the production of knowledge. The indicators of speed in this category are the doubling of the rate of publication of scientific papers in the last two decades and the steady increase in the number of patent applications (Indians filed 66% more applications in 1996 than they did in 1986). This heightened pace of knowledge production is contrasted with the huge differences in the ranking of scientific publications per capita and numbers of computers per head between the developed and developing worlds.



Where the report really breaks new ground is in its pitch to governments and donors to reconsider the advantages of investments in higher education, not in relation to market alone but to the public interest. Here it develops an argument that makes the connections between the values implicit in the best kinds of higher education and liberal democratic values – in particular, the stress on merit and intellect over wealth and connections, critical openness to new ideas and possibilities, and peer review and reasoned debate to evaluate the relative strengths of competing ideas. This is not meant simply as analogy; rather the report posits a relationship between values imbibed in the experience of higher education and its effect on society: ‘The best higher education institution is a model and a source of pressure for creating a modern civil society.’13

More generally, the best universities provide sites for debates about social values, demonstrate pluralism and tolerance, and act as repositories for shared social memories. In order for these values to become widespread, the report makes a strong pitch for broadening access to higher education, especially encouraging the historically deprived and women, along with complementary changes in the tuition and fee structure. In response to the critics of affirmative action and reservations, the report offers a pithy epigram: ‘tolerance at points of entrance with rigour at the point of exit.’14



The report continues this theme when it turn its attention to the rarely acknowledged importance of liberal or general education, not as an alternative to scientific and technical education, but as a necessary complement to it. It points out that employers have long noted that employees with simple technical education provide firms with short term responses to their needs, but are limited in developing beyond entry level functions. The long term needs of firms are met better by employees with a combination of technical and general skills who can translate abilities learned in one setting to other settings as well.

The task force vision of a liberal education stresses cognitive skills on the one hand (e.g., the ability to think critically and distinguish between valid and invalid inferences), and breadth of knowledge on the other (e.g., some familiarity with the sciences, some knowledge of human achievements of the past and philosophical and religious concepts). Apart from the acquisition of the values of responsible and modern citizenship mentioned above, liberal education is to be valued because, if done right, it allows an understanding of the nature of learning itself. This is a necessary foundation for a lifetime of re-learning, a key attribute of survival in a knowledge-based economy.

Readers of the Task Force Report cannot but notice that the model of the American university lies close to the hearts of the commissioners – perhaps not the Ivy League schools of the East Coast, but something closer to the public land grant institutions of the Midwest, with their long tradition of open admissions, community outreach and extension work, and inexpensive, high quality liberal education. It could be imagined that this bias reflects nothing more than a structural feature of the knowledge economy alluded to above. In other words, the ‘industry standard’ has its role in higher education as well.



In conclusion, two thoughts. The best thing about the Task Force Report is its conscious and strident effort to reject the concept of ‘human capital’ and market-driven logics for higher education in the developing world. But we have to consider as well the uses the report might be put to. While its overall analysis and many of its recommendations are sound, the scale of changes that are called for – from governance to curriculum to funding – are so significant as to be practically impossible to implement in most existing institutions. Two possibilities thus seem plausible: the first is a piecemeal acceptance of some of the recommendations which are likely to be, for obvious political reasons, the most innocuous and least threatening to stakeholders. The other is more troubling. After reading this report it becomes difficult to see most Third World universities as anything but white elephants draining the national exchequer, deeply politicized and resistant to change.

Policy-makers and donors are likely to throw up their hands and proclaim that change is impossible under the present circumstances. Only institutions that are relatively new stand a chance of meeting some of these worthy objectives. Could this report legitimize the systematic defunding and benign neglect of existing universities in favour of new institutions that will be built to meet these new criteria from the bottom up? Only time will tell.



* Comments made here are personal and do not reflect the views of the institution.

1. Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative) Debates, Second Session, vol. 5, (1948), p. 3334.

2. Published for the World Bank by Oxford University Press, 1999.

3. Published by the World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2000. This report is also available via the internet, at The report is called ‘Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise.’ The task force is sometimes called the Task Force on Higher Education and Society, at other times Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries.

4. WDR 1998/9, p. 1.

5. WDR 1998/9, p. 2.

6. WDR 1998/9, p. 42.

7. WRD 1998/9, p. 42.

8. The first chapter, ‘Power and Reach of Knowledge’, summarizes the state of research and admits that econometric analyses still largely proceed by defining knowledge as the factor that remains in a production function when labour, land, and physical capital are accounted for (WDR 1998/9, pp.16-25). The chapter elides the fact that knowledge by itself is meaningless – it is the embodiment of knowledge, in blueprints, techniques, machines, services, etc. that is the critical step in the translation of knowledge to wealth.

9. Report of the Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries (RTF), p. 27. See also pp. 56-60.

10. TFR, p. 49.

11. TFR, p. 51.

12. It remains to be seen what the impact of the US courts’ anti-trust ruling against Microsoft will be, however, to have to resort to anti-trust (MRTP in Indian parlance) legislation indicated how powerful the company had become.

13. TFR, p. 65.

14. TFR, p. 62.