Higher education is not always considered a core concern of the development sector. Simply put, the logic is probably that while you may not get rich on a school education, it is sufficient to be able to acquire the knowledge, skills and jobs that will get you out of poverty.
Having recently worked on creating university-level courses in innovation and social entrepreneurship, I myself have often felt that there was a long list of assumptions that had to be fulfilled for my efforts to contribute to reducing poverty. We needed a group of knowledgeable, committed professors to teach these courses, we needed classes of interested, capable students to take them, we needed some of these students to go on to careers in this sector, and we needed the organizations they started, worked for or funded to be effective in reducing poverty.
Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for why higher education is so important for development. First, India has the world's third largest higher education system, and with more than 13 million students, even if only a fraction of them go on to be successful in the development sector, the potential is still immense. Secondly, as Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, put it so eloquently in a recent interview in The Mint, an education system can address the great moral questions of society, such as, "How do we feel about the poor? Do we fundamentally have an ethic that says that every member of society has a right to advance? Or, will we be an elite society?"
Interestingly, if we return to the interview with Melinda Gates that I wrote about in an earlier post, she describes the focus of the Foundation on keeping kids alive as coming from her and Bill's belief that, "All Lives Have Equal Value". In their case, she says that this conviction came from growing up in families that really believed in giving back. However, these beliefs can equally be built through education systems, and have a direct impact on how we do development.
Based on my own experience and Ruth's interview, I would say that our mixed record in higher education is that we have not been very good at addressing the kinds of moral questions that she describes. However, our rote-based system has brought people up to speed pretty quickly, making sure they have a basic level of knowledge in certain, narrow, fields. What concerns me about this situation is that as a society, we seem to be increasingly valuing this narrow, technical knowledge at the expense of a broader education in the humanities and social sciences. While this is only an impressionistic view, if it is indeed true that the IAS selection process is now skewed towards technical rather than other forms of knowledge, this does, and will have, serious implications for how this country is governed.
The "problem" of higher education, from a developmental perspective, is therefore somewhat different from those that are normally discussed. The problem from a developmental perspective, again taking a cue from Ruth, is that of what kind of leadership we want to exercise. I'm sure that most Indians would agree that economic and technical leadership are important components of this. But so are moral, social, and political leadership, which our universities may be preparing us less well for.
Of course, the question of what kind of leadership our universities are preparing us for is one that faces "developed" countries as well. However, in contrast to India, the problem in the U.S. is the decline in the number of students entering engineering fields.
The interview with Ruth differs from that with Melinda, or Vimala's article, because she is not advocating solutions for her sector overall. Rather than opening their own campus in India, Ruth's solution for Brown is to expand its partnership with St. Stephen's College, Delhi University. This can be seen as a tactical move that allows Brown to keep one foot in the Indian higher education market, while avoiding the "pitfalls" that opening a campus in India would involve. (These pitfalls include a $11 million investment, and restrictions on making any profits, as proposed by the Foreign Universities Bill).
However, the tone of Ruth's interview is distinctly different from what I have heard at another top U.S. university that was interested in expanding its partnership with India. There is a humility in acknowledging her need to learn from India's success in certain scientific fields, and in recruiting for and retaining students in them, that would not behoove an university that was only interested in selling itself.
This humility and pragmatism also runs through the interview with Melinda, not only in her acknowledgement that the Foundation can only be a catalyst to reducing child mortality, but in that it must be content with solving the development problems of our lifetime, rather than on insisting on continuing to be of relevance 500, or even 50, years from now.
Earlier, I was always inspired by the phrase, "the revolution will not come in your lifetime", the implication for development workers being that we should nevertheless continue to work towards this revolution. If I were to imagine Melinda's take on this phrase, it might be, "We don't know if there is ever going to be a revolution. But we can create significant change, and we are going to create it now". This, to me, is cautious hope.