Higher education in the post-2015 agenda: proof that it matters

11th September 2014

Higher education really matters. The evidence from our recent research into the links between education and developmental leadership shows that higher education can feed into political stability and civil engagement.

Primary education is, of course, critically important for poverty reduction. Yet poor governance, failing states and conflict are major destabilising forces in the development process, all of which undermine wider efforts at reducing poverty. A focus on poverty reduction alone is unlikely to produce sustainable development.

If we are to reduce poverty, then we also need sustainable approaches to governance, state-building and peace-building. Higher education is essential for the delivery of those approaches.

So it is disappointing that while the post-2015 education agenda focuses more strongly on quality and learning outcomes, it is still largely about primary education. Higher education does not appear to have a place at the table, despite its proven influence on wider governance, state-building and peace-building. Higher education can be a truly transformative investment in a country’s governance, developing leaders and coalitions that can build nations.

Along with colleagues at CfBT Education Trust, I have spent the last three years examining the contribution of higher education to good governance in developing countries, both globally and, most recently, in Ghana. I think it is worth setting out some of the evidence for a stronger focus on higher education in the post-2015 agenda that has emerged from my work for the Developmental Leadership Program and from other researchers in the field.

  • Significant social returns from higher education have a positive impact on governance. That impact may be direct, for instance through increased civic engagement; it may be indirect, through improved tax revenues, more entrepreneurship and job creation, increased charitable giving and community involvement and better social cohesion (Bloom et al., 2007; Heuser, 2007; Kellogg and Hervy, 2009).
  • The contribution education makes to economic growth has a significant influence on long-term transitions towards democratisation, greater respect for human rights and improved economic and political stability (McMahon, 2004).
  • Higher education encourages more pluralistic, open societies, argued the Task Force on Higher Education and Society at the turn of the millennium. Data from the World Values Survey a decade later showed that while nationality embeds fundamental values such as identity, higher education can play a significant role in broadening world views and, for instance, in challenging limited nationalistic assumptions (Welzel and Inglehart, 2010). This is particularly so if teaching methods encourage debate, critical thinking, meritocracy, tolerance and help develop positive leadership skills (Bloom et al., 2007; Heuser, 2007).
  • Higher education institutes help instil principles of good governance and democracy in students, and so promote positive citizenship. They are thought to do this by improving students’ cognitive skills, broadening their values and social connections and improving their economic standing (Welzel and Inglehart, 2008).
  • Through universities, students can form and interpret locally ideas about society, ethics, and political systems (The Task Force on Higher Education and Society, 2000).
  • Universities conduct research and analysis to help inform and improve social policy and governance (Bloom et al., 2007: 300).
  • Higher education institutes can develop a “critical mass” of individuals to support and encourage state-building processes and developmental outcomes (Holtland and Boeren, 2005). In Europe and the US, for instance, an educated middle class created state institutions and consolidated democratic processes (Kapur and Crowley, 2008).
  • Higher education is necessary to improve governance, although its ability to instil developmental values and attitudes depends on a number of factors: the courses and curricula offered, and whether they meet anticipated developmental needs; teaching methods and programme quality; links between a higher education institute and its society and economy; and how much emphasis is placed on social and cognitive development, rather than just the acquisition of skills and knowledge.
  • It is important that an institute’s management and operation reflects the skills it hopes to disseminate (Heuser, 2007), otherwise it may hinder the emergence of non-predatory elites. An institute’s governance issues, such as meritocracy, shared governance, transparency, accountability and academic freedom, are highly influential in the formation of graduates. Many of them may internalise and reflect these characteristics in their political, social and economic behaviour beyond higher education. Higher education institutes will also largely be a reflection of the society in which they are situated (The Task Force on Higher Education and Society, 2000).
  • Networking within institutes of higher education can create developmental coalitions that seek to transform their society for the better, as in Japan, South Korea, Botswana and Mauritius.
  • Secondary and higher education have played a key role in state-building processes in Ghana (Jones, Jones and Ndaruhutse, 2014).

The World Bank argued strongly more than a decade ago for an enhanced focus on tertiary education:

“The norms, values, attitudes and ethics that tertiary institutions impart to students are the foundation of the social capital necessary for constructing healthy civil societies and cohesive cultures—the very bedrock of good governance and democratic political systems…Through the transmission of democratic values and cultural norms, tertiary education contributes to the promotion of civic behaviours, nation building and social cohesion.”  (pp. 5, 31)

If we are to reduce poverty, then we also need sustainable approaches to governance, state-building and peace-building. Higher education is essential for the delivery of those approaches.

This means that higher education must take its rightful place alongside poverty reduction at the heart of the post-2015 agenda.


Originally posted on The Association of Commonwealth Universities’ website, The world beyond 2015: Is higher education ready?

Image: A university student who is earning her bachelor's degree (Photo: Gerhard Jörén / World Bank)


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The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.


Susy Ndaruhutse

Susy Ndaruhutse

Susy is Head of International Development and Education at CfBT Education Trust, where she is responsible for CfBT’s global work supporting education system reform. Her research and advisory work focuses on education policy, strategy and finance. She has a particular interest in how to support education in fragile and conflict-affected states, the post-2015 agenda and the way in which education can help contribute to wider objectives including good governance. 

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