Transforming Higher Education for Competitiveness

 By Manuk Hergnyan and Howard Williams | Washington, 2012
More than any other branch of the educational system, higher education competes globally as a sector. It also needs to contribute to the competitiveness of other parts of the economy. This dual role poses special problems.
Engaging higher education in a collaborative partnership with the private sector, with government support, forms a “triple helix” that can improve the relevance and quality of higher education programs. Consultation with the private sector is common for labor market surveys to confirm priorities for technical and vocational education and training (TVET).  Active involvement by the private sector is essential to identify knowledge and skill standards for jobs in industries with the greatest potential to contribute to economic growth.  These inputs can provide the information to extend the contributions of TVET and higher education beyond employment to economic competitiveness.  
Government leadership provides the necessary authority and legitimacy for academic and curricula reform and for setting regulatory parameters that permit innovation. The academic community must conduct research and reflect that research, as well as real world applications, in their teaching and learning activities, including case studies, so that graduates will have both updated content knowledge and relevant process skills to contribute to and eventually lead their chosen sectors.  The higher education-private sector partnerships can then facilitate learning and employment through internships, apprenticeships, career centers, and recognition by employers of the relevance and quality of graduates’ knowledge and skills. 
The role of higher (post-secondary or tertiary) education is especially important “in developing regions where emerging economies require both specialists trained for science and technical professions as well as strong leaders with generalist knowledge who are creative, adaptable, and able to give broad ethical consideration to social advances.”  
Transformation of higher education is especially needed when research and regular exchanges between practitioners and academicians are not commonplace and traditional education replicates outdated practices. Change and innovation in competitive products and production processes can easily outpace academics’ ability to update the content of their coursework.  More importantly, many undergraduate and graduate programs do not provide opportunities to develop the process skills so urgently needed in today’s evolving economies and dynamic societies. The mismatch between what higher education provides and what is needed to grow the economy lies in part in outdated content knowledge but the wider and more urgent gap is in mastering the necessary process skills to effectively lead economic growth, such as reasoning, problem solving, team work, effective communication, creativity, and risktaking. 
Both the public and private sectors need well-trained leaders, managers, analysts, and technologists (among, of course, other supporting professions) to help their economies become competitive and their societies to be healthy and stable.  Supporting higher education reform that responds to these needs will require a portfolio of investments, both public and private, especially in emerging economies where higher education is expected to play its role as an “economic driver.”
There are two distinctive strategic options for higher education reform in most countries.  A differentiated transformation strategy—the “targeted intervention” approach—focuses on high-impact changes most needed to support economic growth and development, and unlikely to trigger initial resistance to allow reform and new standards to gain traction. An undifferentiated strategy— the “comprehensive reform”— focuses on establishing and meeting higher standards for higher education across an entire system in order to be effective and sustainable. A realistic strategy depends on country context, resources and conditions.  To achieve nearer term results and longer term sustainability, a higher education reform strategy is likely to combine elements from both approaches.