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  • Higher education, also known as tertiary education in some countries, refers to all post-secondary education, including both public and private universities, colleges, technical training institutes, and vocational schools. Higher education is instrumental in fostering growth, reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity. A highly-skilled workforce, with a solid post-secondary education, is a prerequisite for innovation and growth: well- educated people are more employable, earn higher wages, and cope with economic shocks better.

    Higher education benefits not just the individual, but society as well. Graduates of higher education are more environmentally conscious, have healthier habits, and have a higher level of civic participation. Also, increased tax revenues from higher earnings, healthier children, and reduced family size all build stronger nations. In short, higher education institutions prepare individuals not only by providing them with adequate and relevant job skills, but also by preparing them to be active members of their communities and societies. 

    The economic returns for higher education graduates are the highest in the entire educational system — an estimated 17 percent increase in earnings as compared with 10 percent for primary and 7 percent for secondary education. 

    Today, there are around 200 million higher education students in the world, up from 89 million in 1998. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, the number of students in higher education programs has nearly doubled in the past decade. This is critical because, according to a World Bank Group (WBG) report, a student with a higher education degree in the region will earn more than twice as much as a student with just a high school diploma. 

    As the youth population continues to swell and graduation rates in elementary and secondary education have increased dramatically in recent years, especially in regions like South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, there is an intense demand for expanded access to tertiary education. Technical and vocational education and training can provide students with skills and knowledge relevant to the labor market. This massive growth is expected to continue, making higher education a critical public policy issue. 

    Governments are increasingly realizing that the entire educational system—from early childhood through tertiary education-- must reflect the new social and economic needs of the global economy, which increasingly demands a better-trained, more skilled, and adaptable workforce. 

    Challenges remain: even though there is a larger pool of graduates of higher education, many still don’t have the relevant skills needed for a successful integration into the labor market. At the same time, the large numbers of students puts a strain on publicly-funded institutions of higher learning and many countries with limited resources are struggling to finance the growing needs of a larger student body, without compromising the quality of their educational offerings. Higher education also remains out of reach for many of the world’s poorest and most marginalized. In Latin America and the Caribbean, on average, the poorest 50 percent of the population only represented 25 percent of higher education students in 2013.  

    A number of countries have undertaken major restructuring of their tertiary education systems to enhance their reach and effectiveness. However, progress has been uneven. Countries across the world need to ensure that their national policies prioritize equitable access, improved learning, efficient retention, and increased assurance of the success of all qualified students, regardless of background. Both policies and program degrees need to be better tailored to fit the needs of the local economy.  Only then can governments realize the gains in primary and secondary school attainment and turn their successes into increased and sustained economic and social development.


    Last Updated: Oct 05, 2017

  • The WBG supports higher education reforms and innovation through observation and analysis of education reforms, promotion of best practices, and benchmarking exercises from an international perspective. The WBG also provides financial support to country governments and institutions.

    In recent years, the WBG has committed to aiding countries achieve universal education goals, with the understanding that increasing access alone is not enough. A new approach is necessary in the face of rapid social changes. A surge of young people eager to enroll in secondary and post-secondary education, growing urbanization in the developing world, and the rise of new middle-income countries looking to boost their economic competitiveness all demand a comprehensive, holistic strategy. Higher education is also critical to enhancing primary and secondary education, as tertiary institutions prepare the teachers, administrators, leaders, and other educational professionals who staff schools for young children.

    Using tools of the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER), the WBG is currently assessing relevant policy areas of countries’ higher education systems and benchmarking national policies against international best practices. SABER-Tertiary Education collects, synthesizes, and disseminates comprehensive information on tertiary education to enable countries to learn how to address similar policy challenges. 

    Also, in coordination with the Centre for Mediterranean Integration and other partners, the WBG helps individual higher education institutions benchmark their performance on areas of governance, management and quality.

    Key elements of a higher education strategy include:

    Creating programs that connect with the labor market. Not all students who seek a tertiary education should, or want to, enroll in a traditional university and many programs confer degrees that are not relevant to the labor market. In Middle Eastern and North African countries, for example, more than half of the population is under 25 years old, and though tertiary education enrollment has increased substantially in the region, youth unemployment rates are higher than anywhere else in the world, even for individuals holding tertiary education degrees. Institutions of higher education need to be responsive to local labor market needs, creating programs that teach marketable skills and encourage students to acquire real labor market experience.

    Boosting transparency. Generating and disseminating information on program performance—including student retention, completion rates, and job outcomes after graduation— allows students to make informed choices. While some programs offer high-quality services, many programs do not and an independent quality assurance mechanism makes it difficult for diploma mills to enter or survive the market. Many countries have developed accreditation mechanisms, but they are bureaucratic, centrally controlled, and not robust enough to equip students, employers, and society at large with the necessary information. Regulations that hold institutions accountable for the services they sell can create a culture of effectiveness. New Zealand, Colombia, and Ireland, among other countries, show that this approach is both feasible and useful.

    Improving efficiency and removing unnecessary financial barriers. The cost of tertiary education is rising globally and better-designed policies can create incentives for both schools and students to achieve good results. Introducing smart and flexible policies such as performance-based financing, for example, can help address soaring costs. Competitive funds have been effective incentives in Denmark, Finland, Chile, and the United States. The Dominican Republic, Malawi, and Uzbekistan have also adopted similar approaches with encouraging results.

    Making higher education equitable and affordable. While tertiary enrollment has surged globally, it remains largely restricted to students from wealthy homes. In Malawi, only four percent of students enrolled in tertiary education are from families representing the poorest 40 percent. In Mexico, the enrollment rate of the wealthiest is 18 times that of the poorest. In Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, the richest 20 percent accounts for 80 percent of tertiary enrollment, while the poorest 40 percent represent only 2 percent. Policies that combine scholarships and financial aid with measures to overcome non-financial obstacles can boost opportunities for disadvantaged students. In the United States, Korea, Vietnam, and China, tertiary education is not free, but mechanisms exist that support equitable access.

    Leveling the playing field. Allowing a range of high quality post-secondary public and private (not-for-profit and for-profit) providers—including community colleges, polytechnic institutes, and online institutes—to enter the field and compete for resources gives students more options, while generating healthy competition between providers. Many of the small, private institutions also allow flexibility, such as online coursework, and can quickly respond to labor market changes, which is critical, since many of the in-demand occupations today did not exist 10 or 20 years ago.

    Using innovative approaches to make sure that students graduate. Tertiary education is plagued with high drop-out rates and non-completion. In Italy, only 64 percent of students entering the tertiary level complete a degree. In South Africa, 50 percent of students enrolled in tertiary education institutions drop out in their first three years and many of the dropouts are high-achievers in secondary school, come from poor families, and are indebted to the national student financial aid programs that supported their studies. Reasons for dropping out include academic unpreparedness, due in part to low-quality secondary school, financial difficulty, the long duration of some of the programs and lack of flexibility.

    The WBG is also supporting new research on the challenges that policymakers face in improving their countries’ higher education systems —as well as potential strategies to create better opportunities for young people globally.  At a Crossroads: Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean provides an in-depth look at the quality, variety and equity of higher education in the region, with suggestions for innovative solutions to improve, and ultimately transform, the region’s higher education systems.

    Last Updated: Oct 05, 2017

  • The WBG has a highly-diversified portfolio of lending and technical assistance projects in tertiary education, which deal with a variety of specific areas, including quality assurance, performance-based funding schemes, alignment of academic offerings with market needs, public-private partnerships, and governance reform, among others. The higher education portfolio represents, on average, 20 percent of the total WBG investment in education.

    India: The WBG’s Technical Education Quality Improvement Project is working to boost engineering education across several Indian states, supporting some 200 engineering education institutes to produce higher quality and more employable engineers. The program also provides additional support for women and students from scheduled castes and tribes, who have higher dropout rates in the engineering schools.

    Colombia: The WBG is supporting the Program for Higher Education Access and Quality (PACES, in Spanish) which works to enhance the quality of tertiary education, while also improving access for economically and regionally disadvantaged students. PACES provides loans for poor students, as well as grants for master’s and doctoral programs in the world’s leading universities, while giving priority to victims of the country’s armed conflict.

    Vietnam: The WBG’s $155 million project  is aiming to strengthen the research, teaching, and institutional capacity in Vietnam’s National University of Agriculture, the University of Science and Technology in Hanoi, and the Industry University of Ho Chi Minh City. The program also supports the development of an information management and shared e-library system, benefiting nearly 800,000 students and faculty.

    Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) program:  As part of the African Centers of Excellence, an Africa-wide program that is financed by the WBG and implemented by national governments, 24 centers in eight east and southern Africa countries will enroll about 3,500 graduate students. The centers, located in countries including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, will generate African expertise in areas ranging from phytochemicals and textiles to water, agribusiness and renewable energy. In West and Central Africa, where ACE has been operational for a few years, results are already visible. The ACE for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria has published crucial research on the Ebola virus. The ACE for Applied Mathematics and ICT at the University of Gaston Berger in Senegal now hosts the headquarters of the International Laboratory for Research in Computer Science and Mathematics.

    Malawi: Malawi’s higher education enrollment rate is less than one percent of its population— among the lowest in the world—and well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa. A recently-published study, Improving Higher Education in Malawi for Competitiveness in the Global Economy, is helping Malawi’s government better understand the challenges in its higher education system, specifically focusing on factors affecting access, equity, quality and relevance. 

    Last Updated: Oct 05, 2017

  • The WBG works in coordination with several academic institutions and multinational organizations across the world. These include the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); the British Council; the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO); the International Association of Universities (IAU); the Association of Arab Universities (AArU); the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College; and the Association of African Universities. 

    Last Updated: Oct 05, 2017

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