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Since the 1980s, development economists have argued that investing in primary rather than higher education is the best way to lift countries out of poverty. But a study has found that higher education has a greater impact on a country’s economy than previously thought, and so builds the case for devoting more international aid to universities.

In research commissioned by the British Department for International Development, three academics from the Institute of Education, University of London, collated the results of nearly 100 papers on postsecondary education's impact on developing economies.

Rebecca Schendel, a lecturer in education and international development at the institute, explained that the literature review found that tertiary education had a “strong” positive impact on economic growth, which was a “change from what had previously been assumed."

Some of the studies she and her colleagues analyzed even suggested that higher education did more to boost the economy than lower levels of schooling, she added. “For decades there was limited funding for higher education in low-income [country] contexts,” she told delegates at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, in Newport, South Wales.

This, she said, was because economic studies in the 1980s argued that it was “more important to build up lower levels [of education] rather than fund higher education.”

Tristan McCowan, a senior lecturer in education and international development at the institute, later told Times Higher Education that the review “shows that more investment should be channeled toward tertiary education generally speaking, as well as support from international agencies.”

The review also considered tertiary education’s impact on workers’ productivity and on technology transfer to industry, but there was too little evidence to make firm conclusions.

There was evidence, however, that university study improved graduates’ health, increased their participation in politics and empowered women – “although in some cases it was clear that tertiary education was not sufficient to overcome barriers in society, particularly in terms of women’s empowerment,” Schendel cautioned at the conference.

Higher study also makes people more positive about democracy and less tolerant of corruption, concludes "The Impact of Tertiary Education in Low and Lower-middle Income Countries: A Rigorous Literature Review."

Over all, the survey found that the detectable economic benefits of tertiary education flowed from teaching rather than from research, prompting an audience member to ask if this meant developing economies should invest only in the former.

Acknowledging that evidence on the economic benefits of research was lacking, McCowan said, “we can say that there is evidence that we should invest in teaching” and so “maybe that simple fact might say it’s a safer place [to invest].”

The review surveyed papers in English produced since 1990 on low and lower-middle income countries (as defined by the World Bank) outside Europe and the former Soviet Union. It included countries such as India, Nigeria and Indonesia but not China.

The third author of the review was Moses Oketch, a reader in educational planning and international development at the institute.



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