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    Tertiary education is both the aspiration of more and more young people around the globe and a fundamental requirement for employment in the industries that drive the global knowledge economy. As such, tertiary education provides unique opportunities for individual development and equality of opportunity as well as promoting shared prosperity. A well-managed, strategically oriented, diversified and articulated tertiary education system is vital for producing the caliber and diversity of graduates needed both for the economy that exists today and for economy to which a nation aspires. From providing skills for immediate professional application to building stages of complexity of learning toward post-graduate studies and research, tertiary education offers limitless avenues for social mobility and economic development.

    Globally, tertiary education has made enormous advances, in particular with a view to expansion of access; however, there is an unaddressed reform agenda and given the crucial role the sector plays for equal, innovation—based and green growth and cohesive societies, this has become a pressing problem. This includes the following:

    • Globally, tertiary education is becoming the standard school leaving point with the majority of young people from the 20-24 age cohort enrolling in tertiary education in more and more countries. However, average enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa stagnates at below 10 percent.
    • Digitalization is perceived as the great equalizer in tertiary education – but at this stage it is also the great divider. With limited connectivity and access to devices, especially those students who need it most cannot profit from continuous learning at the tertiary level.
    • Most middle-income countries are struggling with a quality conundrum with significant resources being devoted to tertiary education, without visible increases in quality and with persistent skills mismatches.
    • Internationalization is needed to help countries, institutions, and individuals to connect to global developments and harvest the benefits of cross-country cooperation; however, besides its enormous potential, it is still the privileges of a small elite.
    • Universities in high income countries revamp their operations to become key lifelong learning players in a fast-changing environment where individuals need skilling and reskilling over a lifetime. However, most universities in middle-income countries find it difficult to part from being a provider of old-fashioned rote learning for a narrowly defined age-group.
    • Most importantly, while most countries recognize the crucial role the sector can play in their advancement, the tertiary education sector is in many cases a ship without a map and a compass – and subsequently without proper steering. If governance, financing and quality assurance as central steering elements are not put to work, reforms of the tertiary education sector will remain isolated and lack sustainability.
    • Adequate steering also means that the sector is considered in its entirety and not universities, technical institutions, colleges and tertiary TVET institutions in an isolated way. Only to the extent that countries and institutions provide and ensure quality in non-university tertiary education, this sub-sector will be perceived as a viable alternative by students and families and play the important role in terms of access, equity, applied research and support to local companies and communities it plays in some high-income countries.

    The Tertiary Education Imperative

    The persistent debate over investing in tertiary education for development comes down to two major questions—what are the benefits (why)? and what are the consequences of not? The benefits, as implied or noted directly above, include higher employment levels (lower levels of unemployment), higher wages, greater social stability, increased civic engagement, better health outcomes, and more. Even more significant and, perhaps, insightful, is examining what happens when countries underinvest in their tertiary education systems.  Brain-drain and talent loss, limited access to applied research capacity for local problem solving, limitation to economic growth due to low levels of skills in the workforce, low quality teaching and learning at every level of education, and, perhaps most glaringly, expanded wealth inequality among nations, with those investing proportionately more experiencing resultant growth rates far outpacing those with lower levels of investment and strategic development. 

    Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021

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    The WBG supports tertiary education reforms and innovation through research, analysis, and operationalization of education reforms, promotion of best practices, and evidence-based decision making, all informed by international perspectives and comparative studies. The WBG also provides financial support to country governments and institutions.

    The WBG is 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. The 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 that focuses on effective delivery across the entire system. Moreover, tertiary education is also critical to enhancing primary and secondary education, as tertiary institutions prepare the teachers, administrators, leaders, and other educational professionals who create policies for and staff schools for young children.

    Key elements for steering tertiary education effectively include:


    Strategic direction: A well-functioning tertiary education system requires robust strategic direction to guide the entire steering functions for the sector. Governance, management, and strategic leadership of tertiary education are, like other areas of public management, about setting and achieving goals. Both public and private providers need to be able to fulfil the broad functions demanded of the tertiary education sector, as outlined in the section above. There also needs to be a division of roles in terms of sector steering. For example, a ministry ensures that suitable legislation and funding mechanisms are in place; however, its role will be complemented by institutional stakeholders—public and private, possibly buffer bodies, a regulatory and/or quality assurance agency, think-tanks and data warehouses and essential players like rectors’ councils, student organizations, chambers and industry bodies.


    Technology: No system can afford to ignore or diminish its commitment to effective technology from here onwards. However, instead of being the equalizer it could be, unequal access to digitalization – including devices and connectivity – makes technology a dividing factor. Prior to the sudden shocks COVID-19 forced onto the sector, tertiary education systems around the world had widely varying experiences with adapting new realms of technology for local delivery of teaching and researchWithin weeks of the virus’ spread from East Asia in January 2020, countries the world over were forced suddenly to adapt at an unprecedented pace, however, with a common goal of continuing their work in teaching and research in whatever ways possible.  Technology, once seen as a disrupter, became the anchor, and distance delivery became the norm.  How successful this transition and reliance on technology for sustaining core tertiary education functions remains to be assessed, but there is no doubt that without it, most of the world’s tertiary education would have come to a standstill—and remained there for a while.


    Efficiency: In tertiary education, efficiency is not merely conscientious spending to maximize outcomes while minimizing costs.  Efficiency for tertiary education steering refers to ensuring that resources—fiscal and human—are utilized thoughtfully and strategically to promote desired outcomes, both public and private.  Given the enormously complicated and consuming nature of tertiary education, the diverse resources required to be effective demand system-wide commitments to promoting efficiencies at every level. In order to have efficient tertiary education systems and institutions, strategic directions need to be connected to goal-oriented financing, quality assurance and human resource or “talent” management.


    Equity: Tertiary education inequality must be addressed across three key dimensions: access and enrollment, retention/persistence, and completion and successful transition to post-graduate engagement. Improved access measures include: outreach programs to disadvantaged groups; tailored financial support; better and more easily accessible information on study possibilities and outcomes provided to students as early in the education pipeline as possible; fair and transparent admission processes; and student support services, especially during the bridge between secondary and tertiary education.  Retention and successful tertiary learning opportunities can be addressed through interventions such as: remedial interventions for students admitted lacking in the preparatory development and skills to success in the intensity of post-secondary education, expanded student services and administrative support during the entire enrollment period; accessibility of learning spaces and materials; flexibility of provision; adaptation of course design; academic and psycho-social guidance, learning laboratories and tutoring to support extra-curricular academic development; and counselling and targeted financial support.


    Resilience: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the lack of resilience build into even the wealthiest tertiary systems on earth.  Tertiary systems and institutions must include resilience planning at the highest levels of their strategic reforms and planning. Tertiary education systems must know their essential functions and identities (missions and stakeholder communities) in order to sustain those when faced with transformative shocks and must embrace agility at all levels, not only to survive and rebound from shock but to learn and grow from them—adaptation without capitulation.  As the history of tertiary education has shown, universities and colleges are among the most resilient institutions on the planet, because their value and function remain essential to society and their communities are include talented, ambitious, and inquisitive people.  Solutions found in tertiary education have the potential to change the world.

    Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021

  • 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 tertiary 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 Tertiary quality and more employable engineers. The program also provides additional support for women and students from scheduled castes and tribes, who have Tertiary dropout rates in the engineering schools.

    Colombia: The WBG is supporting the Program for Tertiary 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 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. ACE Impact has recently expanded coverage further in West and Central Africa, continuing the enormous reach and impact of the ACE initiatives across the sub-Saharan region.

    Malawi: Malawi’s tertiary 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 tertiary education system, specifically focusing on factors affecting access, equity, quality and relevance.

    Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021

  • 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; the InterUniversity Council of East Africa (IUCEA) and the Association of African Universities (AAU).

    Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Guidance Note

Preventing, reporting and responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment in tertiary education institutions.

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Sexual assault and sexual harassment in tertiary education institutions.

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