LONDON – As many high-income economies continue to flounder, many regard Brazil, China, India, Russia, and smaller emerging-market countries as the best hope for short-term global recovery. Cautious optimism seems justified if emerging markets can weather the impact of shrinking demand for their exports, and sustain their recent records of prudent macro-economic management. But, unless constraints to longer-term growth are addressed soon, the emerging markets’ rise to prosperity and global influence will be short-lived.
The main constraints include environmental degradation, economic deprivation, social inequality, ineffective public-sector management, and weak corporate governance. None of these challenges can be overcome without a massive increase in the number of competent and motivated leaders and professionals. But that requires reforming and expanding access to post-secondary education.
Tertiary education’s pivotal importance in emerging markets was emphasized at a recent symposium that I chaired at Green Templeton College, Oxford. We concluded that expanding access to higher education could be a game-changer for emerging markets if they act promptly and decisively.
Changes are needed on three levels. First, all tertiary-education institutions should ensure that their missions remain relevant in fast-changing economic and social environments, while continuously evaluating their competitive and collaborative advantages. Moreover, they should balance the demands of the marketplace with the need to nurture ethical values and social skills, and adopt admissions and financial-aid policies that give socially disadvantaged students access without compromising standards. And they should embrace governance arrangements that include adequate representation from business and civil society, while anchoring their visions for the future in local, national, and global realities.
Second, at the national level, within their specific economic and demographic contexts, all emerging-market governments should define the strategic role of tertiary institutions in terms of national educational needs. That means embedding primary, secondary, and tertiary education, as well as continuing education and vocational training, in a comprehensive strategy.
National education strategies should be formulated with broad participation from government agencies, business leaders, and civil-society organizations. They should facilitate accelerated transfer between different types of institutions, in order to satisfy changing student preferences, while enforcing nationally applicable accreditation standards in all public and private tertiary institutions (taking international standards into account wherever possible).
Such strategies also should balance the promotion of top institutions with the development of those that serve the majority of students. In other words, they should make the search for excellence compatible with national priorities and objectives. And they should encourage tertiary institutions to develop internal assessment mechanisms, use transparent criteria for external assessment, and employ current information and communications technologies.
Finally, at the international level, the globalization of tertiary education has become evident in rising flows of students between high-income, emerging-market, and poorer countries; in ever-improving Internet-based access to knowledge; and in the proliferation of global institutional partnerships. Yet while teachers and scholars have traveled the world for centuries seeking employment and knowledge, the modern global educational marketplace is riddled with problems that impede academic travel and distort educational choices.
The desire for academic travel is driven by contrasts in the quality, & cost, and accessibility of tertiary education; by differences in admissions criteria, accreditation processes, and potential social and occupational networks; and by capacity constraints in emerging-market institutions that are not growing fast enough to meet growing demand.
In a world in which free-trade regimes facilitate the mobility of capital and enterprise, students, teachers, and researchers should be correspondingly mobile. Yet burdensome visa procedures and heavy-handed immigration procedures are having dire counterproductive effects on global tertiary education.
National security requires border controls. But increasingly arbitrary and nonsensical restrictions are impeding the diffusion of knowledge through personal contact, and choking the global flow of skills and learning.
The transformation of tertiary education is a fundamental condition of sustainable growth in emerging markets. Failure to address its constraints will not cause a catastrophic economic collapse, but neglecting the leadership, managerial, professional, and technical skills that emerging markets increasingly require will inevitably lead to gradual deterioration in overall performance.
The economic, social, and political health of emerging-market countries demands attention to tertiary education now if their potential role as global leaders is to be realized.