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Tertiary Education Overview


As the world seeks to build back better into a new era of green and equitable economic growth, tertiary education systems are at the heart of the big transformations required throughout economies and societies. Tertiary education is vital for the development of human capital and innovation. Strategic and effective investments in tertiary education can serve every country – from the poorest to the richest – by developing its talent and leadership pool, generating and applying knowledge to local and global challenges, and participating in the global knowledge economy. Effective tertiary education systems ensure that countries have well-trained doctors, nurses, teachers, managers, engineers, and technicians who are the main actors of effective education and health service delivery and public and private sector development. 

The imperative for investing in tertiary education derives from two major questions: What are the benefits of investing, and what are the consequences of not investing? The benefits include higher employment levels (that is, lower levels of unemployment), higher wages, greater social stability, increased civic engagement, and better health outcomes. Even more significant and, perhaps, revealing, is examining what happens when countries underinvest in their tertiary education systems. The consequences of underinvestment include brain drain and talent loss, limited access to applied research capacity for local problem solving, limitations 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 within and among nations, with those investing proportionately more experiencing resultant growth rates far outpacing those with lower levels of investment and strategic development.

Key elements of strategic policy advice for tertiary education

Decades of insufficient and ineffective investment in postsecondary education and the advanced skills developed through higher learning opportunities have only exacerbated global equity gaps. The World Bank’s new STEERing Tertiary Education: Toward Resilient Systems that Delivery for All policy approach paper describes the approach of the World Bank to support the development of effective, equitable, efficient, and resilient tertiary education systems and institutions. 

The paper seeks to: (i) reinforce the imperative that every country – regardless of level of development – invest thoughtfully and strategically in diversified, well-articulated, and inclusive tertiary education systems; (ii) provide a framework for policymakers and other tertiary education stakeholders to examine critical traits responding to the needs for advanced skills and lifelong learning in support of growth and development and key interventions for tertiary education systems in the decades ahead; (iii) examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global tertiary education sector and share ideas that promote a resilient recovery from the crisis ; and (iv) provide key information about the decades of commitment the World Bank has shown to utilizing tertiary education for sustainable development, including context, concepts, and scale of the World Bank’s operational and analytical work.

Within this steering framework and with a view to turning the challenges wrought by the COVID-19 crisis into opportunities for impactful reforms, this paper encourages tertiary education policymakers and stakeholders to STEER their tertiary systems and institutions toward greater relevance and impact, utilizing five framing principles:

I. Strategically diversified systems — supporting all postsecondary institutions, ensuring agile, articulated pathways and diversity of forms, functions, and missions

  • Developing future-oriented strategies that center on a strong contribution of tertiary education not only to growth and competitiveness but also to social cohesion and human development more broadly for the tertiary education sector, subsectors, and institutions. This is an agenda for high- and middle-income countries but is particularly important for fragile and low-income countries that need to kick-start the technological innovation and adaption engine and provide the young generation a productive and peaceful future.
  • Positioning tertiary education in a lifelong learning context with flexible pathways, second-chance options, and greater adaptability to the needs and opportunities afforded by employers, civil society, and governments. This means permeability across pathways and providers, modularization of learning offers, and student-centered credit systems to allow for flexible pathways as well as bridging and mentoring programs to boost tertiary remedial education to give everyone a good start and adequate support in tertiary education.

II. Technology — designed and applied in a purposeful and equitable manner

  • Harnessing the power of technology to improve teaching and research capacity while simultaneously acknowledging and countering the impact of expanding digital divides. With tertiary education sectors massively expanding across the globe and low-income groups and countries trailing behind, technology might be the only way to effectively ensure equity and resilience.
  • Building a digital ecosystem with the help of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and effective collaboration across government portfolios. Harnessing the power of technology means that tertiary education institutions not only profit from digitalization but also advance digitalization through the development of digital skills, and application of digitalization across its functions and related research and development.

III. Equity — a universal approach to the benefits and opportunities of postsecondary learning

  • Acknowledging that inequity is a form of injustice.
  • Acting to ensure that equity and inclusion in access and success are a driving ethos for an effective and relevant tertiary education system.

IV. Efficiency — a goal-oriented, effective use of resources

  • Improving information systems so that sectors, subsectors, and institutions can be managed and enhanced utilizing evidence and sound information
  • Devising and deploying governance, financing, and quality assurance instruments that are designed to weather the current and potential future crises.
    • For financing, this means, for example, that systems and institutions diversify their funding base and reduce dependency on a single income source (which will require revisiting questions of cost-recovery and are thinking of student grant and loan schemes in many countries) and use innovative funding mechanisms.
    • For quality assurance, this means that remote options for accreditation and evolution are established and applied when the environment requires such agility in ensuring quality under all conditions.
    • For governance, this means ensuring the external governance — legislative and ministerial oversight — and institutional governance — boards and oversight bodies — are developed and operated in such a manner that promotes effective connections with external actors and the world of work and allows for rapid innovations to be tested and embraced in such a way that institutions are able to continue their operations within the scope of their charters and missions.

V. Resilience — the ability to persist, flourish, and deliver agreed goals despite adversity

  • Acknowledging the need for resilience planning, by taking stock of the successes and failures of the COVID-19 response at the systems and institutional levels and analyzing options that would have mitigated the failures.
  • Utilizing adaptive governance frameworks to embed immediate, strategic resilience interventions to address significant short- and long-term challenges facing tertiary education systems and institutions as a result of the shocks brought on by the pandemic, including diminished resources for institutions, personal and academic challenges for institutions and students, demand for improved infrastructure to support continued distance and blended learning models, reduced mobility placing pressures to improve regional and local tertiary institutions, questions of sustainability of funding models, and much more.

These five priorities present critical building blocks with which leaders and institutions can reframe and strengthen their tertiary education systems for greater impact on learning, growth, innovation, and social development.

Last Updated: Oct 22, 2021

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