In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Higher Education and the Developing World

  • Introduction
  • Defining Development
  • International Organizations (IOs)
  • Colonialism and Higher Education
  • Social and Economic Progress
  • Indigenous Education
  • Regional Perspectives and Reports
  • Further Resources

Education Higher Education and the Developing World
Christopher S. Collins, Meg DuMez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0154


Higher education in the developing world is a subsection of the larger topic of international issues in higher education (see Oxford Bibliographies in Education “International Issues in Higher Education”). Higher education has become a global sector with extensive cross-border interactions, including flows of students, education providers, and even policy frameworks. The intersection between higher education and international development flows in both directions of influence. In some cases, the international development arena has influenced higher education (particularly in developing countries) and, in other cases, higher education is designed to play a role in development goals, such as reducing poverty and promoting social and economic growth. The question of how to explore higher education in the developing world begins with the notion of what constitutes developing. The first section of this article explores definitions of development and the global forces that shape those definitions. This opening section includes ideological and theoretical anchors that help to articulate arguments for and against the particulars of development in practice. A second section explores the biggest actors on the global development stage—International Organizations (IOs). These organizations include development banks, multilateral and unilateral aid agencies, and government and nongovernment organizations that operate with goals that include promoting poverty reduction, economic growth, social progress, and other attributes considered to be essential to a functioning nation-state. Behind the large-scale endeavors of IOs are a host of issues that have created the history of development and facilitated the interaction of nation-states based on power and wealth differences. These issues include the categorization of indigenous knowledge, colonial endeavors, and notions of social and economic progress. Included in the article is a list of regional reports that relate to the issue of development, primarily focused on Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and portions of Central America and South America. The concluding section provides a reference guide to major journals that cover topics related to the issue of higher education in the developing world.

Defining Development

There are multiple ways to measure the well-being of a nation-state, but the Human Development Index (HDI) is a standard method in terms of ranking nations based on criteria such as infant mortality, lifespan, and other key categories (United Nations Development Programme 2015). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces a Human Development Report, which outlines the key themes related to well-being and stratification (United Nations Development Programme 2014). Beyond categorization is the contested notion of development. Theory and ideology drive at least two anchors in defining development. On one side are works such as Sachs 2006, which advocate that a series of corrective actions related to wealthy country engagement and application of new knowledge in developing country settings can lead to a serious reduction in poverty. On another side are works such as Easterly 2007 and Easterly 2015, which advocate that development is a relatively new scheme that was not employed as the world’s wealthiest economies came into power. The most essential ingredient in creating the right conditions for development is human rights, which often gets overlooked as benefactors, technocrats, and dictators distribute humanitarian and development aid. In between the two polar anchors are Banerjee and Duflo 2012 and Sen 2000, both of which offer an important approach to understanding the nuances of development. Focusing more directly on higher education are Marginson 2011, which draws attention to the role of universities and public good, and McCowan and Unterhalter 2015, which constitutes a comprehensive work on education in general.

  • Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo. 2012. Poor economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty. New York: Public Affairs.

    Describes and critiques several primary models for resolving global poverty with recommendations to better observe and assess the true needs of those in poverty to develop real resolution-oriented policies.

  • Easterly, William. 2007. The white man’s burden. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Critiques attempts by governments in developed countries to reduce global poverty through repetition of colonial philosophy with new labels, structures, and expected outcomes.

  • Easterly, William. 2015. Tyranny of experts. New York: Basic Books.

    Proposes a new model for international leaders to improve global poverty that focuses on the development of the freedom and mutual respect of individuals rather than continuing historically based failed models.

  • Grant, Emma, Ilona Blue, and Trudy Harpham. 2000. Social exclusion: A review and assessment of its relevance to developing countries. Journal of Developing Societies 16.2: 201.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852200512058

    Reviews definitions and factors related to social exclusion; the authors propose that this concept constitutes an emphasized component of European development policy that is beginning to be applied toward developing countries as social capital, household welfare, and human capital influences (highlighted in Harpman’s model) determine the social and structural needs of a country.

  • Marginson, Simon. 2011. Higher education and public good. Higher Education Quarterly 65.4: 411–433.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2273.2011.00496.x

    Defines potential public good and public goods outcomes of higher education within the context as economic market, status ranking and competition field, and globally networked and egalitarian identity.

  • McCowan, Tristan, and Elaine Unterhalter, eds. 2015. Education and international development: An introduction. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    Offers diverse reflections on the intersections between educational needs and human resources development, including detailed overviews for primary theories, current challenges, and inspiring initiatives for supporting children’s right to a meaningful education.

  • McGrath, Simon, and Qing Gu, eds. 2016. Routledge handbook of international education and development. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Integrates primary voices in international research to identify the key debates and research topics influencing decisions regarding general education, higher education, and global collaboration.

  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. 2006. The end of poverty. New York: Penguin.

    Develops a multifaceted framework for improving the economic and social conditions for the world’s poorest individuals based on visits to one hundred countries and observations regarding needed infrastructure and utilization of human capital to change the developmental direction and speed of these nations.

  • Sen, Amartya. 2000. Development as freedom. New York: Random House.

    Proposes the need for individual freedom to significantly impact the global economic framework through analysis of diverse cultural and political systems that inhibit or promote critical public support programs, such as higher education and basic health care, which allow for citizens’ self-actualization.

  • United Nations Development Programme. 2014. Sustaining human progress: Reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience. Human Development Report [HDR]. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

    An annual report from the UNDP about the latest trends in human development.

  • United Nations Development Programme. 2015. Human development statistical tables. Human Development Index [HDI]. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

    An annually compiled index that ranks countries based on fixed criteria that indicate levels of human development.

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