“…All regions and countries can benefit from progress toward a knowledge-based economy, which does not depend heavily on material resources, places less of a burden on ecosystems and is more sustainable than other economic models. By shifting to a knowledge-based economy, societies can move from the age of scarcity to the age of abundance. Knowledge does not deplete with use but rather increases as it is shared among people. Through technological innovation, we can help usher in a more sustainable future…”

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General (24 April 2014)

The Brazilian aviation company, Embraer, is the world leader in the production of regional jets. The success of the country’s emblematic firm can be traced back to the creation of ITA, the National Aeronautic Engineering School, in the early 1950s. Established in close partnership with MIT, and widely considered today as Brazil’s top engineering school, ITA has trained the scientists, engineers and technicians who helped build Embraer into a leading global company.

Typhidot is a revolutionary method to diagnose typhoid fever. Invented by scientists at the Malaysian University of Science in Penang (USM), Typhidot is credited with saving thousands of lives. Compared with traditional methods for detecting the disease, Typhidot is faster, more reliable, cheaper, and it does not require cold storage. USM’s Center for Medical Innovations and Technology Development, from which Typhidot originates, is dedicated to finding innovative ways of diagnosing infectious diseases in an effective, quick and affordable manner.

Until the beginning of this decade, most practicing teachers in Palestinian primary schools were poorly prepared and did not have a university degree. After new regulations required all teachers to have both a university degree and a relevant professional teaching qualification, three West Bank universities worked together, with support from a renowned British teacher training institution, to radically overhaul their pre-service teacher training program, introducing a competency-based approach and a school experience element. A quasi-experimental study carried out after three years of implementation found very high value added for the new pre-service teaching program.

These are but three examples to illustrate the unique and vital contribution that tertiary education makes to economic and social development. But notwithstanding this crucial developmental role, for several decades traditional human capital theory challenged the need for public support of tertiary education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers. Influenced by this argument, many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies focused their support on basic education rather than investing as well in the expansion and improvement of tertiary education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the importance of going beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the full value of tertiary education as a fundamental pillar of sustainable development. By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis failed to capture the broader social benefits accruing to society, which are important to recognize and measure. These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path-breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in tertiary education and research to equip developing countries with the knowledge and the qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth. Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from UNESCO and the World Bank, the report had an important impact at three levels. First, it helped reorient donor policies to give greater attention to tertiary education in partner countries. Second, it unleashed several reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves. Third, it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Fifteen years later, the world of tertiary education has changed significantly. Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector. Many of them are facing an exponentially rising demand as more young people graduate from high school as a result of successes in implementing the Education for All agenda. Against this background, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations in September 2015 has given renewed consideration to the importance of education for development and the urgency of putting in place viable financing strategies to expand and transform tertiary education. Indeed, it is doubtful that any low-income country can achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without a strong tertiary education system.

In addition to the essential contribution that tertiary education can make to the goals of sustainable economic growth (SDG 8) and poverty reduction (SDG 1), advances on all the other 15 dimensions, from developing a vibrant agricultural sector and building up a resilient infrastructure to mitigating the devastating effects of climate change and preserving the environment, cannot happen without the participation of scientists and well-trained professionals and the application of leading edge research for finding appropriate solutions to the big challenges faced by mankind. With respect to the goal of diminished inequality (SDG 10), tertiary education plays a critical role in promoting social mobility through equal educational opportunities for all groups, especially the most vulnerable groups in society (low-income groups, minorities, people with special needs, etc.). Achieving the SDGs also requires strong institutions for policy design and implementation, and well-prepared citizens who care about social and economic inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The contribution of tertiary education is crucial, in particular, for achieving real progress in basic and secondary education. A recent study found that more than a quarter of all primary school teachers in 31 countries had not achieved the minimum education standards themselves. Tertiary education supports the rest of the education system through the training of effective teachers and school principals, the involvement of highly qualified specialists in curriculum development and educational research, and the design of appropriate tests to assess students learning outcomes. The symbiotic linkage between tertiary education and the lower levels of schooling has the potential of stimulating a virtuous circle of capacity building in as far as the quality of tertiary education affects the quality of primary and secondary school education and is, in turn, directly influenced by the quality of secondary school graduates.

A similar argument applies to the fundamental role of medical education and research for meeting the health sustainable development goal (SDG 3). Universities train the medical doctors, nurses, technicians, epidemiologists, public health specialists, and hospital managers who form the most important pillar of any health system. Universities and associated health institutes conduct the fundamental research and a significant share of the applied research that condition any significant progress in the fight against diseases and health hazards.

Developing countries must build up their capacity to deal with serious health issues not only because of domestic policy needs, but also in order to contribute effectively to the resolution of global health crises through collaborative research. Indeed, research production has moved from being discipline-driven to problem-focused, with diverse teams of scientists from several disciplinary areas collaborating on the resolution of complex problems, which often correspond to shared challenges that affect mankind as a whole, regardless of political boundaries. This evolution is best illustrated by the global health issues that have come up in recent years, from SARS to MERS to the latest Ebola epidemics in West Africa. In the case of SARS, for example, identifying the corona virus required data sharing and collaborative efforts on an unprecedented scale. This experience has radically changed how the international scientific community responds to emerging global health threats.

This blog was initially published by Inside Higher Education.