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Higher education and development

Unesco’s action for the advancement of higher education and research in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific

by Dumitru CHITORAN

The development of higher learning and the promotion of research through international co-operation have been major fields of action of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), ever since its foundation in 1946. As the specialised United Nations agency for education, science and culture, Unesco had its origin in the spirit of solidarity prevailing within the intellectual and scientific communities at the end of the Second World War. Universities played a leading role in the creation of that co-operative effort. In a very real sense, therefore, universities can be considered to be the Alma Mater of Unesco. Moreover, through their functions in teaching, training, research and service to the community, the universities cover the very areas which fall within the competence of Unesco and are, therefore, among its major partners in action.

In this special relationship between Unesco and higher eduction, the main shift of emphasis, by comparison to the period immediately following the Second World War, has been the orientation of the Organisation’s sustained contribution to the creation, strengthening and promotion of higher education and research capabilities in the developing countries. This task is particularly urgent today and was forcefully pointed out by the Director-General of Unesco when introducing the “ Priority: Africa Programme” at the General Conference of the Organisation in 1989: “ Unesco has a duty to direct its efforts first and foremost towards the poorest categories of humanity, those most in danger of succumbing to despair, those with least access to knowledge and those who are most vulnerable “.

The purpose of the present article is to outline succinctly the major problems confronting the countries of these regions, with regard to higher education and the training of highly skilled personnel, as viewed by Unesco, and to review briefly Unesco’s work in the field of higher education and research in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Finally, emphasis is placed on the need for concerted action by the international governmental and non-governmental organisations, development agencies and international aid foundations so as to assure greater efficiency of international effort.

The role of higher education in human resources development

In a world in which socio-economic development is becoming more knowledge-intensive and is relying increasingly on professional and managerial specialists with advanced training, the role of higher education becomes a crucial element for any development programme. This is especially true for developing countries. Higher education institutions play a key role in the advancement, transfer and application of new knowledge, in training the professional, technical and managerial staff, in forging the cultural identity and fostering democratic processes, while providing also an avenue for social mobility.

A recent World Conference on Education for All, organised jointly by Unesco, UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank examined the overall issue of human resources development and the role of education and emphasised the part played by basic education and literacy in all efforts for national development. Higher education, however, is equally essential to the development process in the modern world. Without adequate institutions of higher learning and research, without access to such facilities beyond national frontiers, the developing countries cannot hope to master and apply the latest advances in science and technology, let alone to make their own contribution to scientific progress. It is only through the development of local skills and competences that they can reduce the gap separating them from the developed countries and thus reduce their dependence on external technical assistance.


Surveys of higher education in the developing countries reveal a paradoxical situation: on the one hand most countries have succeeded in implementing fairly evolved systems of higher education within a very short period of time after gaining their independence; on the other hand, they are facing at present, dramatic declines in the quality of their institutions and a constantly widening gap vis-is the industrially developed world with regard to scientific and technological know-how.

On the success side, mention must be made in the first place of the increase in student enrolments and in the proportion of the age-group admitted to higher education. According to Unesco statistics, the total number of students world-wide was estimated, in 1986, at around 58 million, more than double the figure of 1970. The increase has been much higher in the developing countries: from over 7 million in 1970, to little less than 27 million in 1986. By regions, the increase in enrolments has been the fastest and most important in Africa, from 401 000 in 1970, to 2059000 in 1986, i.e. a five-fold increase. Over the same period, student numbers grew from 1 640 000 to 6 784000 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and from 6 886 000 to 20 111 000 in Asia and the Pacific Region.

Progress has also been made in the diversification of programmes and institutions, in quality of course content and in the training of national university staff and in better adapting higher education to specific national and local needs. Standards in teaching and research at a number of institutions in developing countries have won international recognition. All these and other achievements have been obtained mainly through the effort and the resources of the developing countries themselves. International co-operation and assistance have, however, played a valuable role in augmenting the outcome of national inputs.

It is important to mention the desire and readiness of states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific to set up sub-regional and regional collaborative institutions and programmes. This capacity to go beyond national concerns is particularly valuable in the effort to raise the quality of higher learning and of research. There exist in Africa several regional and subregional research centres in key areas such as agriculture, health, teacher training, staff development and the production of educational materials. The University of the West Indies and the University of the South Pacific, are, in their turn examples of regional institutions created by a consortium of countries. They illustrate fully the great potential offered by regional collaborative efforts in higher education, wherever lack of resources, lack of critical mass of students, faculty, and above all, the limitations of scale imposed by the economic sector require such a solution.

The opening up towards regional co-operation has gone hand-in-hand with the preoccupation for nation building and the forging of the cultural identity of the newly established states as well as for fostering democratic processes in the respective societies. The universities in the developing countries have become powerful symbols of independence, and in that capacity, they have been called upon to play a major role in diversifying the intellectual climate of society, in instilling new values, and in providing independent and informed opinions to policy makers and the public at large. Throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, universities have been and are fulfilling this mission with great dedication on behalf of students and staff alike.

Major needs and challenges

The positive developments mentioned above are, however, overshadowed by a decline in quality of dramatic proportions, and the search for remedies, which depends on a wide range of factors, is highly complex.

The first and most formidable challenge facing higher education in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (and this is true of the rest of the developing world) is to try to reconcile the constantly rising demands made on higher education with the diminishing resources placed at its disposal. Increasing enrolments are a positive trend, but the four-fold increase in the low-income countries, the ten-fold increase in the lower-middle income countries and the ninefold increase in the upper-middle income countries have not been accompanied by concomitant budgetary allocations. On the contrary, in many cases, the latter have been cut, sometimes drastically, under pressure for saving on public spending and as a result of the heavy burden of foreign debts. Existing resources and facilities have been stretched beyond the minimal levels of effectiveness, with declining effects on the quality of teaching and research. Universities are forced to function with larger classes and with inadequate facilities (shortage of books and journals, poorly equipped laboratories, etc.). Student/teacher ratios have worsened. Teachers have reason to complain about their status and salaries.

Much of the expansion has taken place in arts and social science programmes, simply because such programmes are less expensive to staff and cheaper to equip and run than science and technology ones. In fact, this trend has its origins at the secondary level of education where, because of a shortage of good science teachers and the necessary physical facilities, the schools prepare an overwhelming majority of pupils for higher education in fields other than science. The pressure of increasing enrolments and lack of funding, has also led to diversion of resources away from postgraduate studies and from research.

The prospects for the future do not give rise to much optimism. The young represent a higher percentage of the total population in the developing countries than in the developed ones. Increasing numbers of these young people successfully complete secondary education and seek admission to higher studies. However, the average annual rate of growth in student enrolments, despite the increases in total numbers mentioned above, has actually declined.

In Africa it has slowed down from 14.2% for the 1960-1980 period to 8.2% from 1980 onwards. Population forecasts, together with other demographic trends in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific indicate that the social demand for higher education in these regions will continue to grow.

Even those who actually pursue and complete higher education studies do not feel secure with regard to employment. Unplanned growth, coupled with the fact that curricula and research topics often lack relevance to the economic, social and cultural situation in the countries concerned, reduce the chances of employment. There is overproduction of graduates in some disciplines and underproduction precisely in those areas which are regarded as key factors to national development. A paradoxical situation has resulted whereby the number of unemployed graduates in Africa is extremely high, including medical, engineering, architecture, accountancy and education graduates. No wonder, then, that many of those most highly qualified seek employment elsewhere, feeding a brain drain which has assumed alarming proportions. Simultaneously there is large-scale employment of expatriate specialists in various sectors. In 1988, there were 80 000 foreign experts involved in technical assistance in 40 sub-Saharan countries alone. Conversely, it is estimated that, between 1984 and 1987, 30 000 African graduates left their countries and work mostly in the industrially developed countries.

UNESCO’s programme in the field of higher education

Most of Unesco’s programmes have direct links with universities or systems of higher education. It is difficult, in the limited space of an article to give a comprehensive review of all these links. What follows, therefore, is more a series of examples.

Unesco concentrates on promoting regional and interregional co-operation in higher education, through its own regional centres and offices and by helping launch various networks or consortium-type arrangements which operate under the responsibility of participating institutions or of nongovernmental higher education organisations. A separate set of activities concern specialised training and support for self-sustained development in science, engineering and technology. Unesco has decentralised many of its activities relating to higher education; this presentation will focus on Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.


In Africa, Unesco’s regional activities are carried out through its Regional Bureau for Education in Africa. In 1987, a Regional Advisory Committee on Higher Education in Africa was established. In the field of science, the Regional Office for Science and Technology for Africa (ROSTA) has initiated a co-operative network, the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI), with the task of promoting training and research in the participating institutions. Some 20 sub-networks have been established within ANSTI, linking scholars in selected subjects. Staff training (through fellowships, seminars and workshops) as well as joint research projects and the publication of the African Journal of Science and Technology are among its main achievements. ANSTI has gained international recognition as an instrument for successful regional co-operation aimed particularly at enhancing research capabilities and developing postgraduate programmes on a subregional basis. In addition to Unesco’s funds, it is supported by UNDP and a number of international aid agencies and foundations.

A special programme for the countries of the Africa region entitled “ Priority: Africa “ was created by the twenty-fifth session of the Unesco General Conference held in Paris during October/November 1989. Extending over the period 1990-1995, “Priority: Africa” fits into the context of the United Nations Programme of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development (UNPAAERD) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986, and is aimed at fostering the development of the Member States of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) within Unesco’s spheres of competence. Those African countries which have greater resources are expected to be associated to the programme not only as beneficiaries, but also as contributors in the context of technical cooperation among developing countries (TCDC). The programme appeals for contributions from all Member States of Unesco, as well as from the funding institutions of the UN system, in particular the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“Priority: Africa” takes full account of the fact that young African universities have felt the full impact of the financial constraints of the countries in the region which are suffering from grave economic problems. Accordingly, it makes important provisions for assistance in the area of higher education. They are reflected in the Special Programme for the Improvement of Higher Education in Africa, which is currently under consideration by UNDP. The Special Programme is being designed as a set of activities to be implemented under a regional co-operation mechanism. By bringing modulated support to national, sub-regional and regional efforts, it seeks to encourage the pooling and joint utilisation of the skills and capacities of the African institutions of higher education.

At national level, the Special Programme for Higher Education seeks to strengthen national capacities for the preparation and distribution of appropriate study programmes and teaching materials, to develop and enhance human resources and to ensure the more effective dovetailing of training and research activities.

At sub-regional level, the Special Programme seeks to promote: improved integration of higher education into the economic context; specific training and research programmes taking as the frame of reference not frontiers and national states but major natural regions such as the Sahel, forest zones, etc.; the establishment of programme-based networks instead of institutional networks which will make it possible to bring together, around selected programmes, teams working in a number of countries on common global objectives. The Special Programme aims to strengthen the scientific and technological potential of a number of higher education institutions which already enjoy a certain reputation for their expertise in the relevant fields and can, thus, act as centres of excellence to foster common use of resources for training, for the production of teaching materials and for the development of interdisciplinary training and research activities. The Special Programme will, therefore, assist in the setting-up and operation of five programme-based networks, including two in West Africa (Sahel region and forest region), one in Central Africa, one in East Africa and one in southern Africa. Each programme network will be supported by a centre of advanced specialised studies and research possibly based around the Unesco chairs described further on in this article, to be established in the respective sub-regions.

The Caribbean

Unesco’s regional programe for this part of the world covers Latin America and the Caribbean as a single geographical region. The programme does take into account however the differences between the countries of Latin America and those of the Caribbean in a variety of ways.

Activities in the higher education sub-sector, reviewed both by the General Conference of Unesco and by the periodic conferences of the Ministers of Education in the region are carried out mainly through the Regional Centre for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CRESALC). The Centre’s programme, shaped following recommendations by its Advisory Committee involves distinguished academics and focuses on institutional development, technical assistance and information exchange. CRESALC co-operates closely with the university associations in the region, including the Union Universidades Amca Latina, the Organizacion Universitaria Inter-Americana, and the Association of Caribbean Universities Research Institutes.

Unesco’s Caribbean Network of Educational Innovation for Development plays a special role in helping link individuals, institutions and programmes in the countries of the subregion, while also facilitating their access to regional networks.

The Pacific Region

Unesco’s programme for the whole of Asia and the Pacific is carried out mainly by its Principal Office for Asia and the Pacific, located in Bangkok, Thailand. Higher education activities are heavily supported by UNDP and concentrate on case studies, on policies and practices in innovation and curriculum reform, distance higher education, further training of university teaching staff and training of university administrators. One of the most successful programmes has been the network linking 70 universities, research institutions and other higher education establishments in 17 Asian Member States, including countries in the Pacific Region. Since its inception in 1983, three consortia have been founded around three specific areas: innovation in higher education; policy, planning and management of higher education; and special research studies on higher education. A Unesco Office for the Pacific States, located in Western Samoa, covers higher education among its fields of action, and has focused on the particular needs of small states.

In the field of distance education Unesco was instrumental in the creation of the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU) with programmes serving several hundred thousand students in the region. The Regional Resource Centre in Distance Education and the bilateral and multilateral co-operation established between the member institutions of AAOU have facilitated the joint production of video programmes and the establishment of a Master’s Degree course in human environment. Distance education techniques acquire a particularly important role in assuring higher education training to young people in the Pacific Islands. Unesco’s constant support extended to the University of the South Pacific (in conjunction with the Commonwealth Secretariat) has the same purpose in mind.

The international dimension of higher education

Knowledge being universal, its pursuit, advancement and dissemination can only be achieved through the collective effort of the international community of scholars. Hence, the inherent international dimension of universities, as the recognised seats of higher learning and advanced research. International co-operation is a goal and a mode of action shared by the world academic community; moreover it is a sine qua nor’ for assuring quality and efficiency in the functioning of each and every institution of higher education. National authorities in charge of higher education and the institutions themselves are becoming increasingly aware of the advantages and, indeed, of the need for such co-operation as a way of sharing resources, of having access to and of bringing their own contribution to the advancement of knowledge, and of promoting the mobility of students, teachers and researchers. Inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations which are active in the field of higher education have, in turn, adopted programmes meant to encourage inter-university co-operation at the bilateral, regional and international levels.


It is in line with the above requirements, fully recognised by its Member States, that Unesco is launching a concerted international plan of action for strengthening inter-university cooperation, with particular emphasis on support for higher education in developing countries. The key feature of this plan is the development of a spirit of solidarity, based on twinning and other linking arrangements among universities. Hence the acronym chosen for the programme: UNITWIN.

The main goals of UNITWIN are: - to give a fresh impetus to twinning and other linking arrangements between higher education institutions in the industrially developed and the developing countries;

- to help establish sub-regional, regional and inter-regional networks of higher education and research institutions;

- to develop, by agreement among institutions in the developing countries and with concerted international support centres for specialised studies and advanced research which would serve training and research needs across national frontiers. Such centres of excellence will be built through networks of twinned universities, having a system of Unesco university chairs as their nucleus.

Some activities which are foreseen as components of UNITWIN have already been initiated. Thus a large-scale programme for research on higher education management and for the training of key university administrators has already been started, with Africa and the Caribbean regions being given priority. Unesco’s network for staff development in higher education for Latin America and the Caribbean (REDESLAC) will be reinforced and action is now directed in support of institutional and staff development in Africa as well, with the ultimate aim of setting up a similar network (or a number of interlocking subregional networks) in the region. Agreements for the establishment of several Unesco chairs have already been signed. One of them is the Chair in Nutrition, Health and Child Development at Kenyatta University, in Nairobi.

A large-scale programme (complementary to what Unesco has been doing in this field through its Coupons system and through the imaginative action of the Third World Academy of Sciences) is aimed at supporting university and scientific libraries in the developing countries with books, periodicals and other materials, and to develop self-sustainable capabilities in book production and teaching/learning aids in the developing countries.

Progress is also well underway in designing distance higher education programmes (the success of the Asian programme has already been mentioned), given the great possibilities offered by the very rapid advances in telecommunications and in information technologies.

Recognition of higher education qualifications

The mutual recognition of higher education studies, diplomas and degrees fosters mobility, allows for a more efficient use of training and research facilities across national frontiers, while also facilitiating the return to their own countries of specialists trained abroad. Since 1974 six regional conventions, which cover all regions of the world have been adopted under the aegis of Unesco (including Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific). Preparatory work is under way with a view to adopting an international convention.

The need for co-ordination of international development assistance

The difficulties facing higher education in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (and elsewhere throughout the developing world) call, in the first place for appropriate measures and efforts to be made by the respective states themselves. Beset as they are with serious socio-economic problems, bearing the burden of heavy foreign debts, these countries will not find it easy to divert significant resources towards higher education. And yet, there seems to be no other way. One of the explanations for the great disparity in economic and technological progress between the developed countries and the developing ones resides in the reduced educational opportunities and facilities of the latter, particularly at higher levels. Developing their own scientific and technological capabilities is one way of escaping dependence and reducing poverty for the developing countries. There seems to be a new convergence of thinking in the international community about the centrality of human resources development, as evidenced by the latest Human Development Report, issued recently by UNDP.

International assistance to the developing countries for enhancing their high-level training and research capabilities becomes, in light of the above, crucial for development programmes at the national, sub-regional or regional levels. Considerable international aid was granted to the newly established states in order to develop higher education immediately after gaining their independence. The 1970s and the 1980s then witnessed a decrease in such assistance. It is, therefore, most encouraging to see that the international community at large, the international organisations and the development agencies and foundations attach once again due importance to development programmes in higher education and research.

Moreover, there is growing awareness of the need to co-ordinate such international assistance. Since international aid programmes are very often complementary, they can be consolidated and expanded through co-operation. The advantages are obvious: the pooling of resources, particularly when they are as hard to come by as now; avoidance of overlapping and duplication; better identification of projects and increased assurance of their validity through collective agreement and review. More importantly, a multilateral framework of co-operation offers the beneficiaries a wider choice of inputs for particular projects, and reduces the danger of dependence on imported models.

Unesco is fully committed to wide co-operation with potential partners in assisting the developing countries in its areas of competence. In the field of higher education it co-operates closely not only with the other agencies of the UN system (serving for instance as an executing agency for a large number of UNDP programmes), but also with a wide range of inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations.

The LomV Convention includes provisions for assisting the States of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific in areas which are also the concern of Unesco and of other international agencies: enhancing indigenous capacities for scientific and technological development; drawing up and implementing research and development programmes, setting up and expanding training and educational establishments, particularly those of a regional nature; initiation of associations, twinning, exchanges and transfers of technology between universities and institutions of higher education in the African, Caribbean and the Pacific States and in the Community, etc. This complementarily provides a common ground for possible co-operation between Unesco, the EEC and the State Parties to the LomV Convention in the field of higher education, whose development is so important for the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Unesco is ready to co-operate closely with the EEC and with the State Parties to the LomV Convention, in these and other areas, with the conviction that it is only in that manner that the needs of harmonious development of the world can be served best.