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Knowledge Center

Why Higher Education?

The work of the Knowledge Center is based upon the premise that higher education institutions are critical to sustainable human development, evidenced by numerous studies measuring higher education’s contribution to economic growth and long-term benefits to society.

1. The link between human capacity building and higher education
Human capacity development is enhanced through education at many levels, including primary, secondary, technical and vocational, and higher education.  Given the growing complexity of contemporary contexts, higher education is an increasingly more critical piece of human capacity development.  Higher education enhances people’s abilities to make informed decisions, produce technology, adopt and adapt technology, sustain livelihoods, cope with shocks, be healthier, be responsible citizens, and be more effective stewards of natural resources.

Given the importance of human capacity in development, economic growth and social stability, it is no surprise that higher education policy occupies an increasingly important place on national policy agendas. The widespread recognition that higher education is a major driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy has made high-quality higher education more important than ever before in both industrialized and developing countries.

2. Higher Education's Role in Development
Universities and other post-secondary institutions play a role in several important ways including through:

  • Education and training (the so-called ‘human capital’ function)
  • Research and innovation
  • Engagement in regional and local development policy and practice, e.g. improving schooling, community health.

A growing body of literature suggests that the conventional estimates of the returns to investments in tertiary education do not accurately reflect the social value added by tertiary education, including job creation, good economic and political governance, increased entrepreneurship, and increased inter-generational mobility.  In understanding results from research on returns from investments in higher education, three categories are important to consider.  They are:

  • Private Market Benefits – these accrue to the individual in the form of earnings and income as a result of higher education.
  • Private Non-Market Benefits – these accrue to the individual and/or family in the form of non-income quality of life improvements as a result of higher education.
  • Social Benefit Externalities – these accrue to all of society and spill over to many others, including future generations as a result of higher education.

Research has shown, controlling for income and other variables, that individuals with a bachelor degree had:

  • Better health outcomes for the individual, the family and their children
  • Increased longevity and reduced mortality for members of the family
  • Increased child education and improved child cognitive development outcomes
  • Reduced fertility rates and family size especially with women having higher education
  • Increased consumption efficiency and savings rates

And regarding social externality benefits, research has shown that people with a bachelor’s degree helped:

  • Democratization and political institutional development
  • Strengthen human rights and civic institutions
  • Increase political stability
  • Reduced inequality of incomes and increased access to opportunities
  • Lower crime
  • Improved air and water quality

3. Demographic reasons: "The youth bulge"
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will be home to the world’s largest workforce by the year 2040, outnumbering that of China and India. Africa is also the world’s youngest continent and by 2025, will host one-quarter of the world’s under-25 population. This demographic phenomenon poses either a tremendous opportunity for economic growth and development or a significant threat to regional stability and peace and a drag on African economies. This large “youth bulge” – representing those under the age of 24 – and growing inequalities on the continent, bring forth the urgent need to address youth employment issues and access to higher education and workforce development opportunities. The ability of governments, higher education and the private sector to nurture supportive environments for young entrepreneurs and innovators becomes critical.