Tertiary (Higher) Education: Issues and Impact

In today’s globalized world, and in a knowledge-based economy, we have seen the emergence of knowledge as a major driver of growth in the context of the global economy, the information and communication revolution, the emergence of a worldwide labor market, and global social-political transformations. A tertiary education plays a key role in acquiring and building this knowledge. But the poor / developing nations have been lagging behind when it comes to tertiary education, and a key concern is whether these countries will be able to adapt and shape their tertiary education systems to confront the challenges of keeping up with todays’ knowledge-based globalized world.

Advantages among nations come less and less from abundant natural resources or cheap labor and increasingly from technical innovations and/or the competitive use of knowledge – an example of this is the success story of the city of Bangalore, the capital of the Indian software industry. But the developing nations are ignoring their tertiary education systems in terms of investment. It was estimated in 1996 that OECD member countries accounted for 85 percent of total investment in R&D; China, India, Brazil, and the newly industrialized countries of East Asia for 11 percent; and the rest of the world for only 4 percent. One of the main reasons for the gap in agricultural productivity between industrial and developing countries is that advanced economies spend up to five times more on agriculture related R&D than do their counterparts in developing countries. Also, tertiary education is one of the most influential of the set of complex factors that determine TFP (total factor productivity) for a given economy. But it is important to note that the developed nations possess the critical combination of infrastructure, expertise, and the organizational and incentive structures in place, that allows these investments to be productive.
Tertiary Education helps alleviate poverty and also helps support basic and secondary education.

Tertiary Education can make a positive impact in a few ways:

Poverty Reduction through Economic Growth:

The contribution of tertiary education is huge when it comes to the macroeconomic incentive, the information and telecommunication infrastructure, the national innovation system, and the quality of human resources. Hence due to its impact on this framework, it has a direct influence on national productivity, which largely determines living standards and a country’s ability to compete and participate fully in the globalization process.

More specifically, tertiary education institutions support knowledge-driven economic growth strategies and poverty reduction by:

(a) training a qualified and adaptable labor force, including high-level scientists, professionals, technicians, teachers in basic and secondary education, and future government, civil service, and business leaders.

(b) generating new knowledge.

(c) providing the capacity to access the existing global knowledge and adapt it to local use.

Poverty Reduction through Redistribution and Empowerment:

Tertiary education can offer better opportunities and life chances for low-income and minority students, thereby increasing their employability, income prospects, and decreasing income inequality. The ethics, values, attitudes, and knowledge that tertiary institutions can impart to students contribute to the social capital necessary for constructing healthy civil societies and socially cohesive cultures, achieving good governance, and helping build democratic political systems.

Fulfillment of Millennium Development Goals:

Tertiary education institutions play an essential role in supporting basic and secondary education. The training of teachers and school principals, from preschool to the upper secondary level, is the primary responsibility of tertiary education institutions. Education specialists with tertiary education qualifications participate in curriculum design and educational research for lower levels. This link between tertiary education and the other levels of schooling stimulates a virtuous circle of capacity building because the quality of tertiary education affects the quality of primary and secondary school education.

Social and Economic Development:

Tertiary education institutions have a critical role in supporting knowledge-driven economic growth strategies and the construction of democratic, socially cohesive societies. Tertiary education assists the improvement of the public institutions through the training of competent and responsible professionals needed for sound macroeconomic and public sector management. Its academic and research activities provide crucial support for the national innovation system. And tertiary institutions often constitute the backbone of a country’s information infrastructure, in their role as repositories and conduits of information, computer network hosts, and Internet service providers. In addition, the values, attitudes, and ethics that tertiary institutions impart to students are the foundation of the social capital necessary for constructing healthy civil societies and cohesive cultures – the essentials of good governance and democratic political systems.

Three broad activities of tertiary education institutions that assist the construction of democratic, knowledge-driven societies:

– Supporting innovation by generating new knowledge, accessing global stores of knowledge and putting it to local use.

– Contributing to human capital formation by training a qualified and adaptable labor force, including high-level scientists, professionals, technicians, basic and secondary education teachers, and future government, civil service, and business leaders.

– Providing the foundation for democracy, nation building, and social cohesion.

Political and Social Change:

Rapid changes are occurring worldwide, not only in economics, science,and technology but also in political and social dynamics. From the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, to the recent revolution in Egypt, these events are altering the global political landscape of the planet. The outcomes are, a transition to democracy in many parts of the world, a greater concern with issues like governance and accountability, increased awareness of human rights, and the rise of civil society organizations. The proportion of the world’s countries practicing some form of democratic governance rose from 40 percent in 1988 to 61 percent in 1998, and is continuing to rise. Tertiary education institutions themselves have not only been influenced by these changes, but they have increasingly gained importance as pillars of social cohesion, forums of public discourse, and contributors to open debate.

Other Factors:

1) Advanced Human Capital:

One of the greatest and most urgent challenges facing the poorest countries may be to produce an adequate supply of affordable, nutritious food for their growing populations without causing further environmental degradation. The utilization of modern biotechnology techniques such as genetically modified crops can play a critical role in increasing yields, enhancing nutritional value, improving plant characteristics (e.g., resistance to drought and pests), and decreasing post-harvest loss. To make informed decisions on how to address these challenges, countries need to call on highly qualified specialists—who will not be available unless investments in advanced human capital are made.

2) Information and Communication Technology (ICT):

One specific dimension of scientific and technological progress that is already having a strong effect on the tertiary education sector is the information and communication technology revolution. It is revolutionizing capacity to store, transmit, access, and use information. A country’s capacity to take advantage of the knowledge economy therefore depends on how quickly it can adjust its capacity to generate and share knowledge.
Appropriate, well-functioning information and communications technologies are of vital importance to tertiary education because they have the potential to – (a) streamline and reduce administrative tasks and, in general, make possible greater efficiency and effectiveness in the management of tertiary education systems and institutions. (b) expand access and improve the quality of instruction and learning on all levels. (c) vastly broaden access to information and data – cross-campus, or across the globe.

3) Need for Quality Assurance:

A recent survey in India showed that of 144 foreign providers advertising tertiary education programs in the newspapers, 46 were neither recognized nor accredited in their countries of origin. Even in China, the quality of tertiary education is poor. Although it has made heavy investment in basic and secondary education, the tertiary education has been ignored. It’s important for a government to realize that a strategy on investing in tertiary education should not just involve quantity or number of universities, but is should also focus on the quality of these educational institutions.

Dangers / Barriers:

1) Persistence of Conflict: Threats from regional and ethnic conflict, increased poverty, growing economic inequality, rising levels of crime and corruption, and the expanding AIDS epidemic combine to put severe pressures on political and social institutions of all kinds, including tertiary education institutions, thereby limiting their effectiveness.

2) Income inequality: Throughout the world, income inequality both within and across nations has grown as people have benefited differentially from the rise of the global economy.In many countries social disparities and poverty have translated into a steep increase in crime and lawlessness. Equitable access to tertiary education opportunities is important for easing inequalities and related social problems.

3) HIV/AIDS: The spread of the AIDS virus is contributing to economic and political instability. The AIDS epidemic is exerting severe pressures on political and social institutions of all kinds. professors, teachers, administrators, and students are dying or are leaving their academic institutions because of illness or to care for someone who is sick with AIDS. Hence, tertiary education institutions face major disruptions because of HIV/AIDS.

4) “Brain Drain”: The global labor market for advanced human capital is a reality. This circulation of skilled labor brings the problem of “brain drain” to the forefront of national concern, particularly in developing countries. For example, it is estimated that at least 40% of the graduates of the highly regarded Indian Institutes of Technology seek employment abroad. The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have an average tertiary enrollment rate of only 4 percent, compared with 81 percent in the United States, yet it is estimated that about 30,000 Africans holding Ph.D.s live outside Africa and that 130,000 Africans are currently studying overseas. One of Venezuela’s most prestigious private universities, Metropolitan University, lost 50% of its graduates in academic year 2000 to multinational corporations abroad. In Bulgaria the Union of Scientists estimates that 65 percent of all university graduates (close to 300,000 persons) left the country during the past decade.


  • Social and economic progress is achieved principally through the advancement and application of knowledge.
  • Tertiary education is necessary for the creation, diffusion and application of knowledge, and for building technical and professional capacity.
  • Developing countries are at risk of being further marginalized in a highly competitive world economy because of the poor quality of their tertiary education systems.
  • The state has a responsibility to put in place a framework for the tertiary education institutions to be more innovative and responsive to the needs of a globally competitive knowledge economy, and the changing labor market requirements for advanced human capital.

About pritamkabe

Originally from Bombay, India. Relocated to the United States in 1997 for attending graduate school at The University of Texas. Completed my Masters in Electrical Engineering in 1999 and then worked in the Hi-Tech industry for the next 11 years in Austin, Texas. I have a passion for travelling, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures...and i've been very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to travel quite a bit. Sports and food are my other big passions in life. Some life-changing experiences in my life a years ago changed my perspective of life, after which, just have an engineering job was not meaningful to me anymore. Hence i quit my engineering career, and I'm now motivated to give back to society and make a positive impact in some way. To get started on that journey, i went back in graduate school, and recently graduated as a "Mid-Career Fellow in Foreign Service", from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Currently in New Delhi, India, on a research fellowship, to learn about the educational issues in India, and brainstorm my ideas about technological interventions for resolving those issues.
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