The Sleepwalkers: Higher Education in Developing Countries

Higher Education in Asia and Africa has a good problem: It has excess demand. There are just too many people wanting to go to college, oversubscribing any place that there may be. But the number of institutions offering high quality Higher Education are hardly growing: in China, even with 9 new universities joining global top charts between the years 2006 and 2012, this meant high quality provision for only 16% of the additional 385,000 students coming to Higher Ed every year. For Nigeria's 108,000 additional students getting into Higher Ed every year, there will be no expansion of high quality provision.

But this does not matter for poor quality institutions because no one is really saying 'high quality or bust'. The whole rhetoric around Higher Education is really 'graduate or bust', though poorly educated usually joins the ranks of unemployed straight afterwards. And, poor education is also good business: Because education is afflicted with assymetric information problem, students don't know and students often don't ask, poor education, which is profitable under those conditions, often elbow out good education. 

The governments in these countries also take a rather strange stance. They pay lip service to the importance of Higher Education, which creates more middle class demand for Higher Ed, but mostly don't want to pay for it: They are usually content handing out licenses to their cronies to make money out of education. And, lately, they have caught onto the vocational education game, perhaps persuaded by some bright light in IMF or World Bank: But this is a beast yet to be tamed, indeed, as they are defined, designed and executed as poor man's education without anyone seriously considering what goes on there. It is sneered at, not just by those officials who are supposed to be dealing with it, but everyone else, including those who are supposed to be trained. The model may be of Bismarck's Germany, but there is no social compact underlying the efforts, just the vanity of social engineering, so it fails - reaffirming the continuous stream of demand for even poor Higher Ed.

However, despite all this, Higher Education in developing countries also has a bad problem. The sector is somewhat structured on the basis of a hierarchy of global economy that is no longer true. I wouldn't forget the moment when I was challenged, in the middle of a lecture that I was delivering in a Business School in India, when I was making the point about the changing labour market: An irate professor told me that since the world is outsourcing their jobs to India, India has no skills problem. It was an awkward moment, particularly because of my Indian origins which made my talk sound patronising perhaps, but this reflects the general attitude in the developing countries - outsourced jobs and ensuing controversy in the West as a sure proof of decline of the West and a gradual restructuring the world economy. 

Yet, technology is changing everything. Most jobs that are being outsourced today are also being automated. All the talk about near-shoring in the recent years actually mask the automation incident. Besides, the jobs which are still being outsourced are being paid less and less in real terms. World economy is indeed restructuring, but as Tyler Cowen puts it, this means the demise of the average. And, most Higher Ed in developing countries are aspiring to be mediocre, and sleepwalking into disaster.

The big problem is that this is hard to change. The governments don't want to shake it up: They don't have the money, except perhaps in China, to build high quality universities. The education entrepreneurs are happy: The students are coming anyway. The media is happy, immersed as they are in the dream of being world's back-office. The rhetoric about higher education and better life chances of graduates filter into the developing country chattering classes and often accepted uncritically. 

If anyone wanted to see how it felt like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, they would be well served to follow the trajectories of Higher Ed in developing countries.


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