Thursday, September 8, 2011

About higher education in Africa

Shanta Devarajan (World Bank Chief Economist for Africa) had a new paper about higher education in Africa (with 2 co-authors). He is a well-known pro-market economist, and his recommendations are accordingly.

While he is obsessed about excessive government intervention (I think related to the Indian case), I am nowadays worry about the other side, excessive market intervention. Coming from a country considered a serious candidate to be "developed", Chile, where in this moment the whole tertiary educational system (and extreme market oriented solutions) is under fire by most of the society, I would like to share some "comparative thoughts".

While I tend to agree with that introducing "cost sharing" of higher education can be a good principle in order to reduce the financing problem and reduce some regressive subsidies, I doubt that this can be effectively implemented. When higher education went from free to paid in Chile (around 30 years ago), never really happened that fees from the rich when to scholarships to the poor. The general improvement in living conditions made a lot of people go to the university, and the Government answer was giving subsidized credits to those that couldn't afford the fees. The result was a skyrocket increase in fees, now the highest in the world. The big problem in a system with differentiated fees is to identify the “real poor”, something I doubt can be done effectively in Africa.

The ideal for me is that "the rich" get properly taxed (progressive taxation) and then everyone pays small fees in a University funded with these taxes. Since this is not feasible in Africa, the best would be a system that combines: (small and regulated) direct fees + (small and specific) credits + (targeted) scholarships + help to prepare examination tests + incentive to establish private universities (that offer internationally funded scholarships and are regulated by some internationally recognized body, or by some partner external university of excellence) …. I know this still very idealistic.

In terms of the contents, I tend to disagree that the Anglo-Saxon tertiary system of education is what Africa needs. While I think this is the best for a country like Chile, where we need professionals with adaptability and mobility, capable to understand the general picture and applied in different fields, we can do that because we have a critical mass of very specialized and high qualified professionals like engineers, lawyers, physicians, etc… this clearly not the case in Africa. There is the need to train these professionals, requiring 4-5-6 years of specialized studies, particularly because few of them can have the luxury of affording a master degree (even less a PhD) after 4 years of a “general” bachelor. Instead, I think technical institutes that allow getting a degree in a couple of years should be promoted in parallel with universities that offer the very specialized degrees. Also, since most of the people in Africa have some kind of “profession”, with knowledge acquired by practice, institutions that can certify that a person have determined skills and knows the techniques required to perform determined jobs can be a good solution for workers.

There are a lot more to discuss, and I hope this topic will continue in the mind of academics, policy-makers and development practioners....

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