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Higher education, development

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With DD Phiri:

During the years 2007 and 2008, there was a financial meltdown in North America and Western Europe. Many firms and banks became insolvent. This was the greatest recession experienced since the end of World War II. Without timely cooperation between governments and central banks concerned, the world economy was going to suffer the second Great Depression. The first occurred in the early 1930s.

Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, on a visit to London School of Economics, asked economists why they were not able to foresee the coming of the financial recession. Since that time, economists realised that, in the teaching of economics, they had gone too deep into the use of mathematics and neglected history. Some economists are now resorting to history to understand the cause of economic development.

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Among such economists are Ampan Castello-Climent, Latika, Chaudhary and ABhiroop Mukhoputhyay. Their research findings were published in The Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society dated December 2018 under the heading ‘Higher Education and Prosperity from Catholic Missionaries to Luminosity in India’.

The article set out specifically to find out the impact of higher education, that is secondary and college education, on the development of India.

Their study of historical and current experience reveals that the importance of higher education is not unique to India, that higher levels of education can play disproportionally greater roles in development. They cite studies made by other scholars which reveal that skilled engineers and mechanics played a key role in the British Industrial Revolution while average literacy was very low. The French industrial revolution came about in the same manner. Another study reveals that the creation of new universities in medieval Germany, as a result of the papal schism, resulted in greater economic activity in that country.

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This proves that higher education and economic growth go hand in hand. The researchers studied the history of Catholic missionaries in India, in particular. They found that Christianity, as one of the religions in India, had only a two percent impact but where Catholic missionaries were established, especially in the coastal areas and railways, higher education had a great appeal that wherever Catholic missionaries had built colleges, standards of education were pretty high.

Acemoglu et al (2001, 2002) argue that colonies with a more favourable disease environment encouraged more settlement of European colonies and promoted and protected private property right. In Africa, Gallego and Woodbern (2016) found that Protestant missionaries had a larger impact on long-term education than Catholic missionaries but mainly in states where Catholic missionaries were protected from competition by Protestant missionaries. Catholic missionary emphasised higher education in India, perhaps unsurprising— judging by their performance elsewhere especially by the Jesuits.

The researchers draw the following conclusion on education: “Catholic missionaries were not actively involved in the provision of education in the colonial period (of India). The numbers of colleges and schools were uncorrelated with the presence of Catholic missionaries in 1911.”

On development in general, the researchers say the effects of higher education on development are not driven by lower level of education. The researchers’ goal was to discover the casual relationship between higher education and development. They wonder whether it is development that brings about higher education rather than the other way round. A wealthy country like South Africa was able to build many colleges because it had the means—or were the means found first before the colleges were built?

This study has a policy implication for Malawi. Should we build more and more secondary schools and colleges while the country is still very poor? Will such schools and colleges offer quality? Should we not concentrate on a few institutions of higher education like France’s Ecole Normales, with higher quality to produce graduates who will have an impact on economic growth? Universal literacy is a human right. But for the sake of economic growth, we need a few superior colleges which will produce engineers, doctors and scientists.

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