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Emerging Markets’ Higher-Education Challenge

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.