Categories
Universities

When higher education interventions don’t work

I am currently supporting a higher education project in Tunisia and came across an interesting World Bank study considered to be the first of its kind. Final year undergraduates were given the opportunity to graduate with a business plan instead of following the standard curriculum, and were offered 120 hours of training that included ‘most of the components that are considered best-practice for entrepreneurship education’. The optional entrepreneurship track started in 2009/10 and has been running since.

In the first published analysis, short-term impacts were studied:

the entrepreneurship track was effective in increasing self-employment among applicants, but that the effects are small in absolute terms. In addition, the employment rate among participants remains unchanged, pointing to a partial substitution from wage employment to self-employment. The evidence shows that the program fostered business skills, expanded networks, and affected a range of behavioural skills. Participation in the entrepreneurship track also heightened graduates’ optimism toward the future shortly after the Tunisian revolution.

A second paper, published in 2019, examined the medium-term impact using the same cohort:

The medium-term results show that the impacts of entrepreneurship education were short-lived. There are no sustained impacts on self-employment or employment outcomes four years after graduation. There are no lasting effects on latent entrepreneurship either, and the short-term increase in optimism also receded… the lack of medium-term impact holds across sub-groups based on gender, family wealth, skills or social capital.

There are several possible lessons to draw, beyond the clear difficulty of achieving lasting impact. The first is that integrating enterprise education alongside existing curricula, rather than a separate stream, could be an effective alternative. The second, as the second study suggests, is that other limitations are a bigger constraint than the nature of the training, especially accessing capital (there is evidence from Nigeria, cited in the paper, of monetary grants having long-term, positive impact). The third is the importance of continued coaching, training and mentoring beyond the initial period of study.

But what really struck me was how relatively unusual it is to come across randomised control trials of interventions in higher education (and especially published studies of those where the intervention did not work). Fields such as medicine abound with multi-year trials. Primary education has also seen its fair share – this years Nobel prize recognised the work of Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer popularised in the excellent book, Poor Economics. There are plenty of large-scale evaluations and analyses of higher education, particularly around student outcomes, but I struggle to think of large-scale, experimental interventions. My hunch is that, as recognition of the role of higher education in development and social change has increased, so too will demand for randomised control trials within the field.

Failures wanted

Tunis, Tunisia

The Tunisian study is helpful as it shows that a ‘common sense’ prescription (give students business and entrepreneurial skills instead of writing an academic thesis as part of their degree) to a commonly-perceived problem (unemployable graduates) simply did not work. I’d love to see more such studies. Sharing examples of what doesn’t work through large-scale, rigorous testing can be hugely valuable, albeit with the caveat that the results may not always be generalisable to other contexts. As I see it, several things need to be in place:

  1. The basic parameters of an academic study: a control group who do not participate in the intervention, careful analysis of the context and environment, benchmarking and continued evaluation, etc.
  2. An acceptance that the intervention may fail. This is why the World Bank is perhaps better placed to fund such a study than the Tunisian government, who would be less willing or able to share widely the outcomes if the project failed, or to experiment with public funds.
  3. A longer-term (multi-year) perspective with no expectation of clear answers in the short term.
  4. A process of freely disseminating the findings and sharing what has (not) worked.
  5. A sufficiently big budget to launch and maintain a long-term effort, and to provide the capacity for effective experimentation, iteration and evaluation. The World Bank’s Tunisia Tertiary Education for Employability Project runs for over five years and commits 70 million USD.

Crucially, these conditions combined distinguish a rigorous, experimental study from a public policy intervention. If you know of any other experimental, evidence-based studies in higher education – especially those that have been deemed to have not worked – please let me know by email or in the comments below.

Photos of Tunis, Tunisia from Unsplash. Credits: main image, article image.

Categories
Universities

Brain drain and mobile talent: where international development and higher education overlap

Development practitioners call it brain drain. In higher education it’s called graduate retention. In the UK difficulties in retaining graduates in most cities outside of London is an obstacle to rebalancing the economy – a recent study found 15 graduates leave Yorkshire for London for every one moving the other way. In development-speak, brain drain from one country to another is traditionally seen as leading to a ‘human capital’ deficit in the migrant’s home country.

In some cases, an exodus of skilled workers has been encouraged. Devash Kapur explains how Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, has encouraged migration of ‘disgruntled groups’ to maintain authoritarian rule. Much of the Zimbabwean middle class, having the financial means to migrate, has fled to South Africa. Such migration benefits Mugabe, who maintains power and minimises opposition, whilst Zimbabwe receives remittances from the diaspora in South Africa, and South Africa benefits from skilled workers (in particular demand as many highly trained South Africans in turn have emigrated elsewhere).

Others such as Easterly and Nyarko argue that there could be some upsides to brain drain. A few examples:

The migrants themselves are better off, by revealed preference since migration is voluntary.

The migrants may send remittances back to boost the incomes of those left behind.

The migrants may have a positive effect on politics or institutions from abroad.

The migrants may facilitate trading networks that increase source-country exports to the destination country.

I admire work that challenges conventional thinking, and I think most of this analysis holds up at both the level of the individual, and at a macro or national level. What’s missing is the gap in-between: the impact on those places beyond the capital city, the ‘second tier’ cities, the towns and rural areas who lose their skilled workers and human capital. The retention of skilled workers in towns and cities outside the capital allows these places to become sustainable generators of their own human capital, training and educating the next generation who will work and study there, and in turn help that place to grow and to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Another argument worth exploring from Easterly and Nyarko is this one:

The migrants may return home permanently or temporarily, bringing back technology.

If we substitute ‘technology’ for ‘skills’ (and other assets like networks and experience of other systems and cultures), similar arguments are made for higher education in the UK. Graduates move to London for their first job after graduating, but return to their home town – perhaps to start a family, or buy a house – for their second, third or fourth job. The graduates return more ‘valuable’ than they left, and the town benefits. Similarly, students studying abroad will return to opportunities at home, as seen in Asia. There is a ‘boomerang’ effect, with short-term investments giving medium-term returns.

There’s been some recent work on the role universities can play in retaining skilled graduates, and to help areas retain the skills and knowledge that are needed locally. About 18 months ago the City Growth Commission looked at the role of universities in ‘metro areas’. One recommendation proposed ‘golden handcuffs’ to retain graduates through monetary or other incentives. Another – and I think more promising – recommendation was to establish a graduate clearing scheme to funnel good-but-unsuccessful job applications to large graduate recruiters towards small enterprises. And last month, the Government Office for Science looked at graduate mobility, drawing on five case studies of excellent work by universities fostering entrepreneurship, matching supply and demand, working with SMEs, and using data to improve retention.

Ultimately, efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people from elsewhere will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work. Universities clearly play a role here too. Work by KPMG describes ‘Magnet Cities’ that attract the young wealth creators of tomorrow, and in turn create an air of energy and excitement about a place. Several of the examples highlight the role of universities. The Government Office for Science report above talks about the importance of ‘place attractiveness’. A recent book, ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe are reinventing themselves, with the help of universities, as innovation centres that can solve the problems of the future.

Migration is, of course, highly complex, with large cities also suffering from talent deficits in particular areas, masked by overall trends in movement. In London, creative experts are leaving for more affordable cities. Some commentators encourage the term ‘brain circulation’ to reflect this. Perhaps, above all else, mobility should be prioritised – it shouldn’t matter whether a graduate remains in his or her town after graduating, but rather that the town attracts those people with the skills needed for its development, regardless of where they are from.