Higher Education Management in Developing Economies: Mission (Almost) Impossible?

Tertiary education systems in developing and emerging economies have been confronted with an unprecedented “flash flood” of students over the past 20 years.

January 23, 2018

Senior administrators in ministries and tertiary education institutions are confronted today with unprecedented managerial challenges exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority have academic backgrounds unconnected to higher education management. As such, managerial training targeting tertiary education officials in developing economies has become an increasingly strong feature in cooperative programs in international higher education worldwide. But, what do we really know about the nature of these programs: their scope, their stakeholders, their design and delivery, and—perhaps most crucially—their impact on the individuals, institutions, and systems they aim to support?

The need for managerial training is rooted in today’s complex and fast-moving context. Tertiary education systems in developing and emerging economies have been confronted with an unprecedented “flash flood” of students over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the overall “business” of higher education has become much more complex and competitive, and universities are expected to be both productive and accountable for their actions in unprecedented ways.  

In the face of these dynamics, the higher education systems and institutions of the world’s low-income and emerging economies, in particular, face immense challenges and opportunities. Productive working-age people drive economies, and the developing world is certainly home to massive youth populations. However, developing 21st century human capital requires the concerted effort of higher education institutions fit for purpose in complex, competitive, and changing landscapes. This is challenging work under the best of circumstances, even more so in systems that are inadequately positioned to meet these outsized tasks. Insufficient resources, limited infrastructure, and underqualified faculty and staff, along with nonexistent research production, inadequate administrative staff development, and minimal quality assurance are a reality in many quarters.

One of the most crucial considerations for the viability of higher education institutions now and into the future is the development of highly qualified institutional leaders and managers. A study recently undertaken by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, on behalf of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), focused attention on the global landscape of training programs that seek to develop such capacity in universities around the world. The study did not aim to catalog the entire panorama of such programs worldwide—something the International Association of Universities undertook in 2017 on behalf of the World Bank—but rather looked specifically at capacity building programs focused on university management in the context of international cooperation for development.

The findings of the Boston College analysis are both encouraging and underwhelming. On the plus side, although the vast majority of identified programs are rather new (i.e., initiated after 2000), there is a great deal of programming on offer, and these efforts touch most world regions in some fashion. There is a great deal of diversity, as well, in terms of the topics and themes different programs and providers choose to focus on, the target populations and “clientele” they aim to serve, the approaches they take to program design, and the modalities they embrace for program delivery. There are also many different kinds of actors working in this space, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, international associations, university consortia, individual higher education institutions, and more. The richness of the ecosystem provides opportunities for many different approaches and paradigms to flourish.

More sobering, however, is the fact that, despite the massive need for capacity building, and the growing interest among providers to respond to this need, most programs train very small numbers of higher education managers and leaders. At the same time, the wide array of actors providing training programs largely fails to coordinate efforts. This presents a landscape of disperse, uncoordinated, territorial, and ultimately insufficient training opportunities and trainer expertise. There are also precious few data to give us an indication of how (or if) these programs truly facilitate mid- to longer-term change or enhancements, particularly at the level of institutions or systems of higher education. Finally, failing to address the training needs of underrepresented populations at management levels—for example, women and ethnic minorities—may inadvertently reinforce unhealthy political and social tendencies, undermining larger institutional and systemic objectives.

Addressing these concerns will take a long-term and concerted effort. However, placing emphasis in following areas could prove useful.

First, scaling up and diversifying is crucial. To meet the considerable demand for management training, providers must consider innovative approaches to leveraging technology, expanding their base of trainers, and collaborating with key partners to expand their reach. 

Next, clearer evidence of impact is required. Tracking of participant trajectories needs to be improved and systematized, and the cost of maintaining tracer systems and regular contact with alumni needs to be a standard part of program operating budgets.  

Finally, in a context of limited funds and great need, finding funding sources will remain an ongoing concern. Collaboration among training providers and expansion into new content areas or clientele groups (such as the private higher education sector, which developing rapidly and plays a profoundly important role in provision around the world) may prove fruitful.

International cooperative programs focused on capacity building in tertiary education should reflect carefully on these lessons and commit to achieving more in 2018 and beyond. The success of the higher education enterprise in much of the world will depend on it.


Laura E. Rumbley is assistant professor of the practice and associate director at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education. 

Hélène Bernot Ullerö is Program Administrator, Education & Research Initiatives at Boston College, with a special focus on global engagement.


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