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Higher education

Development starts in the mind

Universities play a significant role in development cooperation, as Germany’s Development Minister Dirk Niebel explains in this article.

By Dirk Niebel

A growing number of young people are enrolling in higher education in newly industrialising and developing countries. In middle-income economies, enrolment rates of 20 % and more are no longer rare. In China alone, 6.6 million people embarked on a university course in 2010. India is planning 30 new universities. Surging student numbers obviously boost research capacity: in 2007, 37 % of all the world’s researchers came from developing countries; five years earlier, their share was just 30 %. Africa’s share of global academic publications increased by a quarter between 2002 and 2008.

These trends offer unique opportunities for growth and development in our partner countries. Ever more emerging markets and developing countries are embracing new technologies on their deve­lopment path. Some are making the difficult transition from commodity production to new service sectors. Others are finding their place in international value chains. All face tough challenges in terms of technology and business management. After all, innovation cycles are becoming ever shorter in the economies of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organisation of advanced nations).

To rise to these challenges, our partner countries need well-performing universities to deliver the technical and managerial human resources needed for such transitions. No doubt, university research lays the foundations for new growth. Institutions of higher learning, moreover, contribute to making available expert advice. At the same time, circular migration and the opportunities of the internet are facilitating worldwide knowledge networks, which we vigorously support, for instance in alumni programmes.

Ours is an age of great opportunities. Higher education is a powerful tool for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and it is a prerequisite for strong primary and secondary education. Opportunities need to be grasped, however. For universities to re­alise their full developmental potential, access to them must be assured, and so must the quality and relevance of their research and teaching.

No society can afford to waste talent. College education obviously costs money. Nonetheless, everyone with the capacity to study deserves a fair chance to do so. Access to education is essential – and improving fast: the spread of e-platforms makes knowledge available to a wider public. Means to ensure more fairness include cross-subsidisation of tuition fees, scholarships and student loans. The ministry I head, for example, supports a fund that helps microfinance institutions in Latin America refinance student loans.

Access to education obviously depends on access to learning aids. Electronic media such as e-books are likely to make textbook content more accessible and affordable – not just in developed countries, but in the developing world too.

Only universities that know their strengths and systematically build on them can provide good education. Quality is crucial. Accordingly, higher education systems need specialisation and differentiation. Colleges serve many functions: teaching and research, voca­tional orientation, problem solving, specialist expertise, regional competence, global compatibility et cetera. It is impossible to spread everything evenly across all institutions. Students and employers need to know what they are at. Transparency and competition matter.

Quality, moreover, depends on university gover­nance. Colleges must be free to pursue academic agendas according to rules of science. At the same time, they need to be accountable to trustees, students, donors and regulators, who all demand quality for good reason.

Last but not least, education quality depends on good teachers, up-to-date methods and competent university management. In these areas, valuable support is provided by the time honoured DIES programme which is funded by the BMZ (Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) and run by the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service). DIES provides a platform for university administrators in South and North to share experience – on issues ranging from human resource management to grades and mutual recognition of curricula.

Marketable skills

Just as science can advance only by addressing real problems, economic growth depends on business management being reviewed and improved regularly. Companies need technical and managerial staff with the skills the market demands. However, there are still high barriers between business and academia, especially in Asia and Latin America. They stand in the way of vibrant innovation, startups and more jobs.

I consider partnerships in which business and aca­demia learn from one another very important. Relevant options include cooperation on curricular design, academic competitions, vocational guidance, business incubators, company internships and advanced training programmes for company staff.

In many countries, labour-market demand for skilled professionals is growing. Institutions of higher learning must pay attention, especially in the areas of science and technology. The notion that other subjects are more prestigious is outdated.

As is always the case in development affairs, the governments or our partner countries are responsible for results. They must ensure access to higher education as well as its quality and relevance. On the other hand, due to our special strengths in tertiary education, Germany is a popular partner in the university sector. Our country has long-established high-performing universities that engage of their own accord in development programmes with vigour and creativity. Convinced of the value of such engagement, the BMZ has been increasing its funding for university-related programmes run by the DAAD and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This year, € 42 million are earmarked for this purpose.

Germany, moreover, is a member of the relevant international standardisation and funding agencies, and it is home to companies that run major research and training operations. Our development agencies and partner organisations possess a wealth of experience in cooperation at university level. The BMZ itself is a learning organisation and will make full use of all opportunities to promote talent and harness expertise for development.

Of course, the immediate focus at German universities is on students from developing countries acquiring developmentally relevant competencies. But that is not all they learn in our country. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt promoted a liberating idea of education 200 years ago. Their lasting legacy is to approach the world with an open mind. Academic freedom inspires students’ imagination, and un­restricted research reveals evernew aspects of any subject. Liberty is our response to state-controlled elitism.

Higher education fosters critical thinking and reasoned debate. It is a key constituent for an open society. Indeed, universities serve more than just an economic function. They lay the base for political and social progress. By contributing to better universities in our partner countries, we are not simply promoting science and business. Not by coincidence, after all, have universities often been the cradles of movements for freedom and democracy – in Germany and all over the world.