It’s great to see the International Conference On Sustainable Development is returning for the third year running this September. I was fortunate to present at the first event at Columbia University, New York, in 2013.
My research examined the great insights that organisations such as the UN have gained by adapting Big Data techniques for international development, and looked at whether civil society could similarly harness this technology. My premise for doing so was part of a lofty ideal – to ‘decentralise’ development, to move the centres of development power away from multinational bodies and towards smaller players. You can read the conference paper here (PDF file, pp. 26-35), including case studies of corruption, cocaine and malaria.
Big Data presents exciting opportunities for understanding and tackling development issues. Agencies such as UN Global Pulse are pushing this work forward, opening offices in Jakarta and Kampala. Small organisations and civil society will increasingly work with Big Data as the hurdles to harnessing meaningful insights decrease. Large organisations such as Amazon.com have long used Big Data as a foundation for understanding customers. But there is a key role for universities too, and not just through using Big Data to improve teaching and learning. As Simon McGrath notes, higher education has a role in engaging with some of the recent ‘big development ideas’, from the call for a ‘data revolution’, through enthusiasm for ‘evidence-based policymaking’, to the rise of the ‘what works’ agenda.
Big Data isn’t a panacea for solving all development challenges. Universities can help frame Big Data within the wider context of development processes, they can rigorously scrutinise methods and policy conclusions, and can use Big Data to complement the wider research agenda. At the same time, universities often work both locally and internationally, and can draw on the benefits Big Data is delivering to both small organisations and multinational agencies.
At the core of increasing collaboration between universities and businesses is getting people from each to talk to one another.
I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits of collaboration. When universities work with businesses, economic growth happens. Broken down further, when universities work with businesses, businesses can access new technology and knowledge and apply this to their work, become more innovative, and improve the skills of their staff. Universities can improve the employability of their students, and test new research in a ‘real world’ setting. When the two work together, new jobs are created, productivity increases and everybody benefits.
At least, that is how the theory goes. How does this work in practice? Strip collaboration to the core and you’re left with the need for people from universities to speak to businesses, and vice versa. Here are two ways to encourage this – one nudging businesses towards universities, and one students towards small employers:
- Innovation vouchers provide funding for businesses to access external expertise. They reduce the risks that businesses (especially small ones) face, and can attract larger investments and build partnerships. Appropriately tailored and effectively marketed, these relatively small investments benefit universities and businesses, and long term can boost growth and employment. You can read more on how vouchers work and their benefits from the OECD and Universities UK.
- Careers services can promote the benefits of working for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and encourage students to take up a placement, internship or job at an SME. Students may have misconceptions about small businesses – that they aren’t as innovative as multinationals, for example – that can be dispelled by a few well-chosen case studies.
The CBI recently published an excellent guide to university-business collaboration with a practical focus. Although this, and the above links, are UK- or European-focused, they are equally applicable (with tailoring to local context) to low-income countries. This is a particularly exciting area and a source of long term economic growth and innovation.
Last week the Overseas Development Institute published an excellent report, Working for economic transformation, on generating better jobs in low income countries. The report notes that countries need to make decisions in education policy to match labour market demand:
Promoting higher-level technical or university education, more expensive per student, can help facilitate the leap to more productive sectors. But this can come at the cost of reduced funding for junior levels of education, which might allow for a wider boost to low-productivity employment. It can also help to exacerbate inequalities in education, with tertiary places more often taken up by those from wealthier backgrounds. Increasing investment in lower levels of education tends to have a greater effect on improving attainment outcomes among the poorest. At the same time, expanding educational enrolment and attainment may reduce available funding necessary for higher-quality education, such as for school facilities, teacher training and wages. (p.28)
In other words, there is a budgetary choice to be made between strengthening schools (junior levels of education) or universities (higher levels of education), and there are clear opportunity costs for each.
In policy terms, however, education should be seen as a continuum from school to college to university, and higher education has a role to play in strengthening the stages that come before it. This role needs to be explored and expanded and encapsulated in government policy: universities can train the teachers and advise on curriculum design to strengthen junior education. Their links with businesses can ensure future skills needs are being met throughout the system. At the same time, universities can work with businesses, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to support their growth and in turn their demand for highly skilled graduates. Facilitating internships and placements for students in industry further strengthens these links, and provides a technical and enterprise focus to degrees. As the report concludes:
Setting employment at the centre of development agendas requires a whole range of policies, plus coordination among these policies and of the dynamics between different sectors of the economy. Education policies need to be matched with the requirements of growing industries with productive employment potential. (p.39)
The continuum between junior and higher levels of education becomes particularly important when we consider development policy. One consequence of the Millennium Development Goals focus on achieving universal primary education is the pipeline of students who could potentially go on to study at university as the MDGs draw to a close this year. Treating each stage in isolation risks missing the opportunity to greatly increase the amount of highly skilled jobs created worldwide in the years ahead.