The Community College Role in Developing Countries

Institutions with job training missions are gaining popularity in some parts of the world.
August 10, 2007

Students at Polytechnic of Namibia, an institution with several degree programs similar to those at American community colleges, tend to lack an entrepreneurial mindset. So determined Albin Jacobs, a college official, as he tracked graduates' performance in the workplace.

The problem, as Jacobs explains it, is that for large swaths of the population, independent inquiry wasn't emphasized -- in the classroom and in society at large -- during apartheid. Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, and now even in a much different environment, Jacobs said there's ground to make up.

"The culture of opening your own business, of taking a risk and taking initiative, was suppressed for such a long time that we have to build that mindset in students," he said. "It's all about critical thinking."

With money from the United States Agency for International Development, Polytechnic of Namibia has attempted to promote entrepreneurial thinking by teaching instructors how to teach their own students to find a niche in the science and technology job market. That's particularly important, Jacobs said, in a country where the unemployment rate is roughly 30 percent.

Given other staggering unemployment rates, it's no great surprise that workforce development is the primary mission of community colleges in the developing world. Job training is seen by political and business leaders as a way to give low-skilled workers background in high-demand fields.

During the second day of an international higher education conference co-sponsored by U.S. AID and Higher Education Development, which helps coordinate partnerships between American and international academics, several speakers explained how their collaborative projects (made possible by the U.S. AID grants) helped create better academic environments in the developing countries.

The projects themselves varied: opening up opportunities to students with disabilities, providing computer training, preparing learning materials for elementary school teachers. In most cases, the American community college or colleges provided their counterparts abroad with instructional materials and ideas about how to teach technology to foreign students so they can adapt to a changing workplace.

By most accounts, governments in the developing countries where projects took place have a clear sense of the workforce needs. Still, some panelists expressed frustration that foreign leaders don't always make the connection between the necessary job training and the place that can provide it -- the community college, a relatively new phenomenon internationally.

"There's a perception that community colleges tend to take a backseat in international higher education, and that's probably reinforced by a small number of them that take part in partnerships like this," said Cassie Kruger, chief executive officer at False Bay College, in South Africa.

Some countries are still grappling with the identities of their new community colleges as they borrow some concepts from the American system. Vietnam, where the first community college opened less than 10 years ago, is trying to decide whether its institutions should be less competitive versions of existing universities or act more like vocational training hubs, said Analy Scorsone, director of global studies at Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which worked on a project with a Vietnamese college.

For that project, several American community colleges helped train instructors at the Vietnamese institution to teach their students information technology. Scorsone said Vietnam recently began requiring all government employees to be "IT literate."

The project at Polytechnic of Namibia also involved numerous American colleges. The grants allowed the college to open the Centre for Entrepreneurial Development, of which Jacobs is director. Taking curricular ideas from those in the private sector, the center runs seminars on topics such as how to start a business.

A center for teaching and learning is designed to train faculty in all academic departments how to run courses that teach entrepreneurial skills -- including how to design course Web sites and post syllabi online. The program also included a faculty exchange, in which American and Namibian instructors observed each other's academic operation.

Andrea Siebenmann, program manager of Community Colleges for International Development, a consortium of institutions that was a liaison between the colleges participating in the Namibian project, said there is an increasing amount of foreign interest in the American community college model, seen by education ministers as "one solution to the problems of high unemployment and low levels of academic training."

Several of the American community colleges have taken on multiple projects, and Siebenmann called on more institutions to start partnerships abroad. She and others promoted the program as a way to make academic and business connections and expose faculty to international education.

Jacobs added that American instructors who work abroad with students from developing countries get a sense of what it's like to teach immigrant populations with varying educational backgrounds.

Also at the conference, college administrators and faculty leaders circulated a statement, intended for federal lawmakers, that asks the United States to step up its investment of such initiatives. "In the current international climate we are faced with the hard reality that our efforts to put our shared learning to work for the benefit of those most in need has been overshadowed by other priorities," the letter reads. "We believe that while the United States has been expanding its initiatives abroad, it must be recognized that support for academic involvement in development initiatives is eroding."


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