Professor David Bloom's speech, Conference on "
Globalisation and Higher Education: Views from the South"

Cape Town, South Africa March 28, 2001

Thank you Dr. Ramphele for those kind words of introduction.

And thanks also to the Education Policy Unit of the University of the Western Cape, the Society for Research into Higher Education, and the members of the Conference Organizing Committee for their work in arranging this exceptional gathering.

Madam Chairperson, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: Good afternoon and thank you for taking the time to be here. It’s a great pleasure for me to return to Cape Town. Seafarers have always looked forward to first sight of Table Mountain. I saw it in February 1998 when the Task Force on Higher Education held its first meeting here. Now three years – and many circumnavigations of the world later – I am flattered and honored to have this opportunity to return. It feels like a homecoming at the end of a long journey.

The Task Force was convened in late 1997 by UNESCO and the World Bank, with Dr. Ramphele and Professor Henry Rosovsky serving as co-chairs. With Ramphele and Rosovsky leading the effort, our worst fear was that the report would come to be known as the R and R report – R&R being a common acronym for Rest and Relaxation. Fortunately, our fears have not been realized. Ramphele and Rosovsky had just the right mix of creativity, experience, inspiration, and humility to achieve a comfortable consensus among the extraordinarily diverse and never shy 14-member Task Force.

Professor Rosovsky is not here this afternoon, but he has asked me to convey his good wishes to this distinguished and dedicated audience. Fortunately, Dr. Ramphele is here, and so too, is Professor Philip Altbach. Professor Altbach was this morning’s keynote speaker, and is one of the world’s leading scholars of international higher education. Professor Altbach served brilliantly as a special consultant to the Steering Committee of the Task Force, and I am hopeful that he will join Dr. Ramphele and me in responding to the questions that arise following my remarks.

The main goal of this afternoon’s session is to make sure that everyone is properly introduced to the Task Force and to its work. I am therefore going to tell you a little about the Task we were set; the Forces that bought us into being; the report we labored on; and the impact that report is beginning to have.

Names are important. So I’ll start with ours. The full name of the Task Force is The Independent Task Force on Higher Education and Society. UNESCO and the World Bank may have brought us into being – but they wisely insisted that we operate independently. Normally, “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” but we were funded by a consortium of 10 financial supporters. No supporter was dominant and none was intended to be. Our report was published by the World Bank, but it was published without World Bank review and is not an official document of the World Bank, or for that matter, of UNESCO. We were required to think about higher education afresh – and we were permitted to do that outside any organizational boundaries.

Our first activity was to take stock of the higher education scene in the developing world, which is home to 85 percent of world population, but to barely more than half of the world’s 80 million higher education students.

Of the roughly 40 million higher education students in developing countries, relatively few are enrolled in truly high quality programs. The rest face a slew of problems. They are taught by poorly-qualified, poorly-motivated and (no surprise) poorly-compensated faculty, struggling with inadequate facilities and outmoded curricula. The secondary education system has often failed to prepare these students adequately for advanced study – and, once on campus, political activism, violence, cheating, corruption and discrimination can undermine their progress.

Yet these are the young people who we will rely on to grapple with the huge task of building a better future for the developing world. These are the young people who will provide the “capacity” to run more effective governments, develop the businesses of the future, and build the health and education systems that make such a difference to the quality of life. Universities and colleges in the rich world may also be in crisis – but there the crisis is not so bad, the resources are many times more plentiful, and the need for higher education’s chief product – knowledgeable and resourceful people – not nearly so pressing.

Even more disconcerting for the Task Force was the realization that, without bold action, the performance of the South’s higher education systems seems certain to worsen. Three factors are at work here. First, the uncontrollable demand for higher education. Second, the growing importance of knowledge in the modern world. And third, the inexorable and often cruel logic of globalization.

First, we should salute, but recognize the problems caused by, the incredible and growing thirst for education that we see all around the world. We have educated more and more young people to primary and secondary level – but, like Oliver Twist, they want more! They realize something that even the richest governments are only beginning to wake up to: in today’s world, higher education is basic education. Education that is needed by the masses – and can no longer be confined to a tiny elite.

Added to this thirst for knowledge and skill are some demographic realities. Most developing countries have large baby boom generations. And as babies will, these boomers are growing up. So there are more and more young adults. And more of these young adults feel the need for advanced education. It is worth noting, of course, that this is a huge opportunity dressed up as problem – not the other way round. The baby boomers will keep aging and, as the West struggles to cope with aged and decrepit populations, the developing world will have access to a demographic dividend as a rising proportion of workers supports a falling proportion of dependents. This dividend will be collected, however, if – and only if – the workers have the education to create, seize and exploit new opportunities.

So developing countries cannot stand still and focus their attention on improving the quality of their higher education systems. They must first direct their efforts and resources to increasing the quantity of education on offer. And they must do both it in a planned way. At the moment, this planning is not there and it’s leading to a burgeoning of new institutions – many of them private, most of them poorly focused, and some that do little more than prey on the aspirations and assets of well-intentioned students and their families.

Second, developing countries face the problem that, across the world, everyone recognizes the growing importance of knowledge – that weightless asset that is fast supplanting tangible resources as the foundation of wealth and power. Unfortunately, knowledge begets knowledge and rich countries have, so far, shown themselves to be in a better position to nudge their higher education systems in the direction of providing what will be needed in tomorrow’s world. The knowledge economy seems to be reinforcing and further magnifying income differentials that are already huge by historical comparison. IT has some countervailing potential – but so far it has too has delivered most benefits in rich countries. It was in the USA, not an emerging nation, that a university, Stanford, and a whole series of new technologies came together to produce Silicon Valley – a phenomenal (if now troubled) economic powerhouse.

The third factor – globalization – adds to these difficulties. As we know, it is a shorthand term for the process through which national economies are integrated. Globalization occurs through four principal channels: movements of goods, capital, labor, and ideas. Its potential benefits are huge but, so far, these benefits have been delivered predominantly to the rich world. As a result, as the Battle in Seattle highlighted, the process of globalization faces growing opposition. But in the meantime, globalization increases the ability of rich countries to compete for talented students and faculty and focus their attention on the problems of the North, not the South. Globalization is also making the world economy increasingly competitive, and increasingly unforgiving of laggards. The phenomenon of drain, train, and retain the best brains clearly undermines the South’s ability to compete in business – as well as weakening its chance of building the better high education systems that are essential to it achieving even a semblance of parity.

So this is the problem.

And to try and tackle it, the Task Force ended up focusing its energy on three overarching questions:

- First, what is the role of higher education is supporting and enhancing the process of economic and social development?

- Second, what are the major obstacles that higher education faces in developing countries?

- Third, how can those obstacles best be overcome?

We didn’t approach these as academic research questions. Rather, we addressed them by blending analysis, intuition, and background reading, with the knowledge and experience of Task Force members and dozens of others around the world who shared their insights and observations or who provided comments on various drafts of our report. We also tackled 5 specific issues, each of which constitutes a separate chapter in the report.

- Higher education and the public interest
- Systems of higher education
- Governance
- The importance of general education
- Science and technology

We chose these issues because of their importance, and because of the fact that they seem to have been neglected elsewhere. By contrast, we do not provide detailed treatments of the undeniably important issues of higher education finance and the role of information technology in higher education. It seemed to us that relatively little was to be gained by duplicating the good work of others in these areas.

For good measure, and in the interests of creating a resource for other researchers, we also included a statistical appendix describing and reporting international data on higher education.

So how to summarize a report? It is tempting to take you through the whole thing, but as the Nuremberg Trial lawyer, William Norman Birkett, once said: "I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain they are still going." So, in the interest of brevity and of the discussion time built into this plenary session, I will refrain from anything resembling a comprehensive review and opt instead for a quick advertisement and then for a “One Minute Manager” version of each of the key chapters.

First, the advertisement.

I have three copies of the Report with me today. They are bribes – and will be awarded to the first three people who break the silence and ask questions after I have concluded my remarks. For the less vociferous among you, the Task Force has a website where the report – and related materials – can be downloaded or read. The address is and you will probably be able to get hold of a hard copy if you email the web master at

And, now some quick summaries.

Public interest

I want to start with the importance of the public interest in higher education – which is another way of talking about the strength of interest that a society has in a top class higher education system.

Why are we arguing this case? Surely, the importance of higher education is self-evident. Well, it may be to us, but for many international institutions – most notably our co-convenor, the World Bank – it has not traditionally been a priority.

I am reminded of a story told by Chief Justice Fuller, who sat on the US Supreme Court at the beginning of the last century. He was chairing a conference when one of the speakers started to rant about the evils of higher education, praising God that had been spared contact with a university. "Are we to understand you’re thanking God for ignorance?" asked Fuller. "Well yes, I suppose you could put it like that," the man replied. "In that case," said Fuller, "you have a great deal to thank God for."

Modern ignorance about higher education has been led by economists – the tribe of dismal scientists, of which I am one. Our habit of knowing the worth of everything, but the value of nothing, has led us into an incredibly simplistic way of assessing the return on investments in higher education.

There is not time to explain the calculation in full – but the basic flaw is to measure return on education exclusively through wage differentials. Take someone who has no education, someone who has been to primary school, someone who has completed secondary school, and someone with a degree. How much more does each earn than the previous? This differential is then compared to the amount invested in their education to find the return. The results suggest that higher education yields a lower return than primary or secondary education – and has been used to justify the skewing of government budgets (and developments funds) away from higher education institutions.

Out of politeness, the Task Force doesn’t use the phrase “Garbage In, Garbage Out” but that’s the gist of its observation here. Higher education obviously confers benefits above and beyond enhancing the incomes of those who received their degrees. And many of these benefits take the form of public goods, such as the contribution of higher education to enterprise, leadership, governance, culture, and participatory democracy. These are all vital building blocks for stronger economies and societies and all routes by which the benefit of investment in higher education multiplies throughout society.

Common sense tells us that countries need primary, secondary, and tertiary education, not two out of three. All three are vital to human, social and economic development. All three are very definitely in the public interest. So the Task Force is adamant that education should not be thought of as a zero-sum game, where basic education is pitted against advanced study. Education is a positive sum game. We need more of it, and of higher quality, at all levels.

A focus on public interest and higher education has two further implications. First, that market forces alone will not deliver vital public goods. Markets are moved by profit, mainly quick profit. Private interests overlap, but only partially, with a society’s long-term interest in accumulating and imparting knowledge and its capacity for generating new knowledge. This observation is especially true with respect to the basic sciences and the humanities, vital subjects the market will never deliver optimally because there is not enough money to be made. Markets, on their own, will not deliver access for all, either. They will cater mainly to the privileged, creating education for the elite, not the masses. The public’s representative – i.e. government – must be prepared, therefore, to protect the public interest. This does not mean that governments should crowd other players out. But it does mean that government must be prepared to act as guide, facilitator, funder in some areas, strategic planner and, when necessary, regulator prepared to wield a hefty stick.

The second implication concerns the oft-repeated argument that public investment in higher education is socially inequitable because university graduates – the future elite – are already part of the current elite and therefore not deserving of public subsidy. This view has some merit, but it is not decisive. Higher education confers huge benefits on society as a whole. It would be narrow-minded and counterproductive for a society to forego those benefits simply because they are not distributed equally. Society must get people to pay as much for their education as they are able to – and simultaneously avoid shooting itself in the foot!

In addition, we must keep in mind that higher education is one of the most powerful mechanisms societies have for upward mobility: it has enormous potential to promote prosperity among people with talent and motivation, irrespective of their social origins.

So subsidy is needed, but the government should only spend its very limited resources where no-one else will meet the bill. This means subsidy when bright but disadvantaged students cannot pay, or in areas where the market will not provide.


From our public interest focus, you will see why we developed an interest in higher education systems. Thinking about systems forces countries to focus on the forest as well as the trees – to view the structure and operation of higher education institutions in concert, not just individually. Our view of higher education systems encompasses everything from public research universities to private vocational schools. It addresses the place of these institutions viz-a-viz each other, as well as their links to the rest of the education system and the broader society. Such a perspective lends itself naturally to the development of a rational system of higher education in the public interest, rather than the poorly coordinated structures that are growing up higgledy piggledy because no one dedicating themselves and taking responsibility for the big picture.

Effective systems are supervised, but are not controlled, micromanaged, or manipulated politically by government. They are explicitly stratified, with different types of institution dedicated to different missions. A technical college is not better or worse than a research university. It is different – and it must play to different rules and achieve different objectives. Excellence in higher education, we believe, is only possible when this realization is built into the very fabric of the system. As an American with an Indian wife, I feel just about qualified to make a cricketing analogy. Occasionally, cricket teams are blessed with a true all-rounder, like India’s Kapil Dev or South Africa’s Mike Procter. But mostly they rely on specialists, each of whom understands his role and each of whom can play as part of a team – that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Likewise, a higher education system must value the contribution of each of its specialists, while blending them together into a powerful – and preferably world-beating – force.


Now let’s turn to governance, by which we mean the arrangements -- both formal and informal – that allow the higher education “team” to function. Many of the people who gave evidence to the Task Force pinpointed this as the key problem impeding the effectiveness of higher education institutions. And so we developed a set of principles of good governance, such as academic freedom, autonomy, the need for monitoring and accountability, meritocratic selection, and so on. And we also describe a set of tools for converting these ivory tower principles to action, ranging from specific mechanisms for hiring and promoting faculty and for appointing university administrators, to boards of trustees, faculty councils, institutional handbooks, and visiting committees.

In the end, we reach the common-sense conclusion that good governance is not sufficient, but is most definitely necessary for quality higher education. We also stress that the tools and principles of good governance cannot be blindly transported from either the public or private sector, and applied to higher education. Higher education institutions are different – both from large seniority-based government bureaucracies and from commercial enterprises, with their focus on results in the short term. They need to be prepared to learn from other organizations – but must always adapt new solutions to their own very special needs.

General Education

The next two themes look at areas that are at the heart of any education system. First general education which represents an answer to the age-old question “What is an educated person?” And second, science and technology – an area that is fast becoming the center of gravity for the emergence of new knowledge.

General education emphasizes the development of the whole individual, and not just their occupational training. It highlights the ability to think, communicate, and learn; and to adopt a broad historical, comparative, and disciplinary perspective on different issues. And it is a foundation for later, more specialized, study.

The Task Force Report urges the introduction – or in a few cases the expansion -- of high-quality general education in developing countries. Such an education is not for all students, but it is in each country’s public interest to have individuals who can operate at a high intellectual level in rapidly changing times – whether that involves negotiating with the IMF, deciding whether to import generic AIDS drugs, or acting to develop a national legal system that can robustly protect fundamental human rights.

The content of general education curricula will naturally vary across countries. For example, South Africa should not blindly adopt the conception that exists in Britain or Taiwan. Designing a general education program offers the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what matters to a particular society. The Task Force believes that not only the outcome of this exercise, but also the process itself, is likely to be of great value. It will help energize the whole higher education system – and, in time, change the way a society thinks about itself too. Higher education has always been about lofty ideals. These ideals are not luxuries, but help form the vision that makes higher education thrive.

Science and Technology

Science and technology is the final thematic area covered in the Task Force Report.

Science presents a particular challenge for universities across the world. First, science is, itself, a public good. Scientific inquiry often needs huge investment to deliver long term, but highly uncertain, benefits. The market is not very good at funding this research on its own – especially when the benefits will be felt by the poor more than the rich. As has often been noted, in today’s world it can be easier to find funding for research into a new dandruff shampoo than it is to try and develop a cure for malaria.

Second, the way that scientific knowledge is produced is changing rapidly – a point that is made forcibly by Michael Gibbons, yesterday’s key note speaker. Increasingly science is done across organizational and disciplinary boundaries, it involves public and private sector participation, and it is often directed towards solving a strategically important problem.

Third, scientific progress is leading to growing uncertainty, rather than certainty. The furor over genetically-modified foods – which ties together cutting edge science, big business, and globalization into a heady cocktail – is a perfect example of how difficult it has become to understand where a particular scientific advance is taking us. The relationship between science and society is becoming increasingly vexed – because increasingly experts must admit: “we really don’t know.”

Science as a public good. Changing modes of knowledge production. A growing climate of uncertainty. These three factors mean that universities must be substantially more flexible and fleet of foot if they are to fund science adequately, pull together the highest caliber of scientific teams, build curricula relevant to modern societies, and maintain public support for their scientific research.

These problems are compounded in many developing countries, where the science and technology base is currently low. The Task Force believes that developing such a base is no longer a luxury, but is becoming a necessity for all countries trying to compete in the global knowledge economy.

In some developing countries, this base will be useful because of the new discoveries developing country scientists make – especially the ones that have commercial value whose intellectual property benefits accrue to the developing country.

But, more broadly, a strong science and technology base is important to low and middle income countries because it puts them in a stronger position to select and implement existing technologies, and to adapt them to local circumstances. From bio- to nanotechnology, IT to pharmaceuticals – science holds the power to make a dramatic difference to quality of life in developing countries, but only if their higher education systems can help guide and control its development.


I want to conclude by returning briefly to the three questions that the Task Force focused on. First, the importance of higher education to society. I think that higher education is transformative. It has certainly been an absolutely transforming experience in my own life. My grandfathers were both immigrants. One drove a cab, the other peddled vegetables on the street. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have attended college and graduate school as higher education has catapulted me through class and income categories and opened the world up to me. This transformative effect spreads to whole societies – and investment in higher education systems is one of those far-sighted decisions that our descendants are sure to thank us for.

Second, I think we are agreed that higher education in developing countries faces a legion of problems. These obstacles are formidable but not insurmountable, so it is a matter of switching attention to the third question – how these problems can be solved.

As Lloyd George, wartime English prime minister, said: "The finest eloquence is that which gets things done" and, from the beginning, the Task Force report was intended to stimulate others to take action. Obviously, we could not hope to prescribe for 80% of the world – cultures differ, economies differ, and higher education systems must be different too. The task for us was not to design solutions, but to outline problems and suggest ways to approach the issues. The vision, political will, and managerial skill to move beyond our “call to arms” can only be found at national level. Our role as a catalyst is already being vindicated. In Pakistan, for example, educationalists, policy-makers, business, civil society and international organizations recently came together to discuss what our report means for Pakistan. That country’s higher education system faces serious difficulties and must try to reform within a troubled economic and political setting – but we were all impressed by the seriousness and ingenuity with which the people we met in Pakistan have dedicated themselves to the reforming task.

When considering implementation, perhaps the toughest issue is the question of priorities. (And I too have had to prioritize in this speech – there are many important areas that I would like to have discussed, but have not been able to for reasons of time.) But as policy-makers and educationalists sit down in each country to plan the reform of their higher education system, I’d like to leave them with two thoughts. First concerns the importance of their task – for they are dealing with the knowledge, which as John Bates Clark, has remarked is “the only factor of production that is not subject to diminishing returns. Second, concerns the importance of the decisions they make. In the Harry Potter novels, Harry is warned that “it is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” As for Harry, so for national decisions on higher education. Whatever the short term pressures, it is countries that make decisions for the long term that, in the long term, will surely prosper. I hope the Task Force will prove a catalyst that helps release the energy for those decisions to be made.

And on that note, I think I’ll close.

Thank you.