Why does so little foreign aid go to support universities?

Students at the University of Science of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

Between 2002 and 2013, approximately US$42.6 billion was given in foreign aid by the world’s richest countries to support higher education in developing countries. That may sound like a lot, but the total amount spent on foreign aid in that period was US$1.6 trillion – dwarfing higher education to just 2.7% of the total.

As the graph below shows, the spending in US$m by the top donor countries has changed very little over ten years. But why have universities had such little support?

International aid to higher education, $m. OECD, Author provided

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a series of studies for the World Bank suggested that the benefits of a young person continuing education after secondary school were significantly higher for the person themselves than for their nations. This evidence strongly supported the prevailing view that tertiary education, such as studying at university, only helps the wealthy and privileged, perpetuating these inequalities across generations.

The same studies suggested that investment in primary education returned a whopping double the level of social capital for young people as investment in tertiary education did. Globally, this resulted in a prioritisation of funding to primary education, which was reflected in the second of the Millennium Development Goals: to achieve universal primary education.

In the early 2000s, a number of studies posed important and high-profile challenges to the World Bank position, arguing that the focus on earnings gave far too narrow a picture. In 2008, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that tertiary education contributes globally to social and economic development through the formation of human capital, building of knowledge bases, and the maintenance, dissemination and use of knowledge.

Lack of rigorous data on this remains a challenge, but current global debate draws on a much wider analysis and understanding of the returns on investment in tertiary education than that initially posed by the World Bank – who have also moved on in their thinking. There is now rapidly increasing interest in addressing the gaps that the previous policy left in the education system.

Breaking out of the cycle

In 2015, developing countries face a wide range of challenges if they want to expand access to tertiary education in a sustainable way. The historic lack of aid, combined with the effects of structural adjustment policies on general public spending (enforced by the Bretton Woods institutions in the late 20th century), which led a lot of developing countries to cut back on their education budgets in an effort to reduce public spending, means that universities have been under-resourced. As a consequence, they are unable to address rapidly rising student numbers.

Many of the most qualified and able academics in Africa, southern Asia and South America have emigrated to universities in the global North, leaving institutions with deteriorating academic infrastructure. These circumstances are compounded by increasingly inefficient and in some cases corrupt governance.

The close relations between higher education and politics has also made universities vulnerable to impact from student activism and political change. Without stable, long-term tertiary education policy linked to national human resource developments, graduates are unemployed, unemployable and highly disenfranchised.

An increasing number of private institutions are establishing themselves in the university market in developing countries, but are seen as at best neutral in impact and at worst creating more problems. For example their fees tend to be very high, their enrolment figures are very small, and they often exist just to serve one specific agenda such as religious studies.

In addition to the requirement for academic quality in teaching and research, research has shown that tertiary education can only be successful if it is aligned with appropriate primary and secondary education. It’s also important that nations ensure equity of access to tertiary education, regardless of wealth, race, gender or disability.

Inevitably, the lack of aid to higher education has also had consequences for the quality of primary education. Without adequate higher education, there has been insufficient capacity to train the teachers, managers and leaders needed to assure a minimum standard for the quality of school education. Without integrated primary and secondary education, students are unprepared both in subject expertise and in transferable study skills for entry to university… and so the cycle continues.

Time for change

Historically, data has shown that countries who prioritise education in their overseas development commitments (France, Germany, Japan, Austria and The Netherlands) devote a higher percentage to higher education. Countries such as the UK and the USA, which allocate a lower share of their bilateral aid commitments to education more generally, have apportioned a relatively smaller amount to higher education.

The Sustainable Development Goal for education includes a target to ensure “equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”. On the cusp of global commitment to these goals, it’s a time for change across the donor community – and signs suggest this is happening.

In 2013-2014 the UK Department for International Development (DFID) established a higher education taskforce, launched a comprehensive literature review on the impact of tertiary education on development and co-hosted a retreat conference: Higher education and development: Tackling 21st-century challenges. DFID is consequently expected to launch its biggest-ever tertiary education fund in 2016.

USAID has also positioned access to higher education and workforce development as one of its four education priorities and on June 30 launched a programme statement, indicating that 2015-16 will see a funding priority for work in this area.

We know that new and innovative approaches are needed to enable universities and other providers of tertiary education to equip students with essential skills for sustainable economic development. Only by working in global partnerships, linking policy, practice and research, can we hope to offer the next generation of students the best possible start to their working lives.