The difference 33 years can make

The returns to primary education (whether social or private) are the highest among all educational levels… Top priority should be given to primary education as a form of human resource investment.
Psacharopoulos, 1981, p.326, p.333

Such studies had considerable influence at the World Bank and contributed to a reduction in funding for higher education in many countries. Fast forward 33 years:

[T]here is evidence to suggest that [tertiary education] may provide greater impact on economic growth than lower levels of education… [Tertiary education] contributes to the strengthening of institutions, and the forming of professionals in key areas, such as education and healthcare. The diverse functions of the university, in addition to its direct impact on economic growth, should be acknowledged and supported.
Oketch et al, 2014, p.8

Today higher education is featured in the Sustainable Development Goals, including targets on access to affordable and quality university education and increasing the number of scholarships to low income countries. Notably absent in the Millennium Development Goals, these targets follow a renewed acceptance of the role higher education can play in overall development, even for the poorest countries.

Of course it would be a mistake to drive policy solely by measuring economic returns, or to view primary, secondary or tertiary education in isolation. Education is a continuum, and higher education has a role to play in strengthening the stages that come before it, not least through teacher training. Nonetheless, 33 years can make quite a difference.

Photo Credit: neeravbhatt via Compfight cc

Are interregional relations the new international relations?

Universities can link important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative

Relations between regions will be the new international relations. The diplomats of the future will represent cities. That, at least, is my hypothesis based on two trends:

  1. The focus on cities as emerging units of governance, taking on the problem-solving responsibilities traditionally held by nations. I’ve written about this before (for example here). The focus on cities is due to more than population growth and new buildings, which we often associate with the term urbanisation. Yes, cities are growing. But they are also political actors and centres of ideas and innovation.

  2. The need for these cities to work with each other. I’ve written about this here. Agglomeration economics are not new – the northeast megalopolis in the US is a prime example – but relations also need to stretch beyond individual clusters.

Similarly, there has been quite a lot of attention paid recently to universities and place, but not so much on how universities work with other universities and partners across and between places, and the connecting role they have between local, national and international. The focus on cities and their connections magnifies the importance of universities in cities, and the connections they can help broker.

Two recent articles in Times Higher Education mirror this. The first frames universities as problem solvers. Michael Crow writes:

…universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society; that we can and should be measured by the impact that we have on the public good… Education should move beyond singular academic disciplines as the point of focus and towards multidisciplinary programmes and schools capable of understanding and solving complicated real-world problems.

Second, Clare Melhuish references historian Thomas Bender, who

has compared urban universities to immigrant neighbourhoods in US cities, where residents live in both local place and in a trans-local, diasporic culture at the same time – grounded, while globally connected. From this perspective, universities need to develop a long-term view of how they nurture and evolve those everyday interactions.

In a recent post I asked what might happen if we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations. Here are four initial thoughts:

  1. Networks of cities (such as this one or this one) will greatly increase in importance. Most people would struggle to name a group that brings together city or regional leaders, but there are countless well-known examples of gatherings for heads of state. I think international networks of cities are in their infancy and will greatly grow in profile and influence.

  2. Similarly, bilateral relationships between cities and regions become more significant. There is growing evidence of this. To take an example of relationships between British and Chinese cities: earlier this month a Confucius Institute opened at Coventry University, a new collaboration between the university and a longstanding partner – Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (JUFE) in Nanchang. And there are already smart city collaborations between Bristol and Guangzhou, and between Manchester and Wuhan.

  3. Freed from the constraints of nations, we start to think about groups of people. For example, the pioneering work of Andy Sumner found that 72% of the world’s poorest people live in middle income rather than low income countries (in particular India). In part this work helped increase the focus on inequality and highlighted that poverty is often a distribution problem between regions in countries rather than an international distribution problem.

  4. Development issues don’t conform to nation states. Simon Maxwell, the former director of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, recently gave a speech exploring development agency choices in a new landscape. Reflecting on the shrinking number of low-income countries, he talks about development agencies focusing less on specific ‘target’ countries (except, perhaps, the small group of ‘fragile’ states) and more on the ‘essential building blocks’ of global public goods. These include preventing the emergence and spread of infectious disease, tackling climate change, enhancing international financial stability, strengthening the international trading system, achieving peace and security, and generating knowledge – all challenges that cross borders and require extensive cooperation. He concludes:

the emphasis on global public goods suggests turning an old mantra on its head: not ‘think global, act local’, but ‘think local, act global’.

Universities already have strong links across regions, and in particular international links that aren’t solely between one capital city and another. They link between the important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative, but have a lower profile. They draw on alumni, research, staff and institutional relationships. They think local and act global. They can play an important role in facilitating new regional connections.

Photo Credit: Shenzhen cityscape by BBC World Service on Flickr

History, policy and development

In policy both the medium and long term are often sacrificed in favour of the short term

Having studied both history and international development, I’m always interested in work that bridges the two. ‘History, Historians and Development Policy’ fits the bill perfectly. One of the many valuable lessons to draw from such work is the importance of taking a long term view:

…history brings a particular kind of perspective to development problems – it is a vantage point for framing and viewing the nature of development which is relatively long term and comparative, while also paying full attention to, and not shying away from, critical issues of power, contestation and conflict. (p.16)

In policy both the medium and long term views are often sacrificed in favour of the short term, for example the apparent willingness to erase the institutional memory on higher education within government. Although this rarely results in colossal blunders, it clearly hinders effective learning and can engender cynicism in those on the receiving end.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is an interesting exercise to free ourselves from the short and medium term and think ultra long term. For example, this piece argues that ‘megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures’, and that cities have outlasted all ‘empires and nations over which they have presided’. If we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations, how would this affect policy? And would, for example, universities in those cities change their strategies? (I’ll look at this next week).

We should welcome historians into policymaking. The excellent History & Policy site attempts to do just that. An essay from 2010 on ‘The ‘Idea of a University’ today’ concludes:

If we seek guidance from the past, it is better to see the ‘idea of the university’ not as a fixed set of characteristics, but as a set of tensions, permanently present, but resolved differently according to time and place. Tensions between teaching and research, and between autonomy and accountability, most obviously. But also between universities’ membership of an international scholarly community, and their role in shaping national cultures and forming national identity; between the transmission of established knowledge, and the search for original truth; between the inevitable connection of universities with the state and the centres of economic and social power, and the need to maintain critical distance; between reproducing the existing occupational structure, and renewing it from below by promoting social mobility; between serving the economy, and providing a space free from immediate utilitarian pressures; between teaching as the encouragement of open and critical attitudes, and society’s expectation that universities will impart qualifications and skills. To come down too heavily on one side of these balances will usually mean that the aims of the university are being simplified and distorted.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

The Paradise Group and other unrelated musings

Welcome to Paradise City

A new “Russell Group type” alliance of the top universities in Africa will bring together 15 universities from 8 countries. Notwithstanding the difficulties of coordinating activity from Lagos to Pretoria and from Dakar to Kampala – and research collaboration is one of the main aims – such a group is overdue.

One of the strengths of the UK system is the diversity of institutions. It would be good to also see a University Alliance for Africa, although a regional network may be more effective – for example a West or East African grouping.

Of course, such groups need a good name. The Russell Group is named after the hotel in Bloomsbury where the group was formed. I remember staying at Paradise City Hotel in Nigeria – the Paradise Group does have a good ring to it…

City leadership ‘missing a trick’

The Government Office for Science recently published a report on ‘the future of city leadership in the United Kingdom’. It’s good to see a recommendation to integrate local universities into city leadership, and to use universities as part of a wide knowledge base for informing leadership (page 37):

City networks can enhance learning as cities work together, as can partnerships with universities and think tanks. Some workshop participants citied a growing involvement and contribution from universities in their work, while others felt that cities were often “missing a trick” where universities were concerned. This “trick” might be a critical way for city leaders to leverage local resources to increase their knowledge and hence their capacity. Universities can serve as independent and neutral partners, providing academic rigour to the evidence used to inform policy and programme development. Long-term collaborations (as opposed to individual projects) that involve joint working and co-production of knowledge in particular can bring substantial benefits to cities.

We’re doing work on this at Universities UK in light of devolution, and feeding into House of Commons inquires such as this one looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. Leadership is important both within and across cities, especially in new geographies that aim to create ‘systems of cities’.

Learning Circle: peer-to-peer education

GNU_Emacs_ELIZA_example Image: A bad example of Eliza the chatbot

A Pearson/UCL Institute of Education paper makes the case for taking artificial intelligence in education more seriously.

We’ve had realistic psychotherapists since the 1960s, today chatbots are about to take off, and in the near future automation and machine learning offer huge potential rewards to those who can capitalise on them.

Chatbots in education are highly unlikely to replace lecturers any time soon. But a bot you could add on WhatsApp that you can ask to reserve a book in the library, or book a room for group study, or advise on research resources, or provide basic pastoral support, or request transcripts is certainly possible today.

I also wonder what the education equivalent of a Funding Circle or a Ratesetter might look like. These FinTech services bypass banks and allow individuals to lend money at a higher interest rate and others to borrow money at a lower rate than at banks, by mediating between the two and taking a small cut in the middle. A higher education equivalent would bypass the institution and allow lecturers to teach small groups directly – the opposite end of the scale to MOOCs. Ultimately, however, you’d still face the same issues as MOOCs in terms of accreditation, and lose the many benefits of studying at university.

Images: Paradise City Hotel, Calabar, Nigeria / Example of ELIZA in Emacs by Ysangkok at English Wikipedia (