Rebuilding higher education after war

Rebuilding higher education after war

In today’s globalised world, where knowledge is a key driver of growth, socio-economic development and livelihood improvements, countries emerging from violent conflict need immediate, substantial and long-term support for (re)building and reforming their higher education systems and institutions.

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By Dr. Savo Heleta


One of the main roles of higher education is to develop human capital for socio-economic development and good governance. Universities are places where critical thinkers, administrators, civil servants, technicians, scientists, doctors and teachers are developed.

In many developing and conflict-prone countries higher education has been a neglected sector for decades, receiving insufficient support from local authorities and international donors. In addition, in countries experiencing violent conflict, higher education institutions often face repression, threats to academic freedom, brain-drain and destruction.

Without human capital, post-conflict countries will not be able to improve living conditions of their citizens and develop. Quality higher education can contribute to the recovery, peace-building, economic development and better governance.

However, rebuilding higher education systems and institutions in post-conflict settings is not a priority of local and international actors and does not feature in post-conflict planning. External actors’ main priorities are conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, basic education and democratisation; local authorities often prioritise security and self-enrichment while ignoring education and livelihood improvements.


Neglecting higher education

The World Bank report on education in post-conflict settings notes that prioritising basic education while neglecting higher education creates long-term imbalances and challenges:

Much of the energy and resources of the international community have been directed at basic education, while education authorities have been left to their own resources to deal with the needs of the other subsectors. The result has been that system recovery has in some instances been out of balance in ways that will directly affect economic and social development in the longer term.

Even though the international community’s focus is on basic education as part of the humanitarian response, the total spending on rebuilding the education sector – including the basic, secondary and higher education – is still minimal, accounting for only 2% of the overall humanitarian assistance.

When it comes to the aid for higher education in developing and post-conflict countries, ‘only a small share of aid is currently intended to strengthen higher education systems in recipient countries. About 70% of aid to post-secondary education is intended for scholarships to study in donor countries.’

While many universities from the developed and emerging world as well as a number of international organisations and NGOs have been involved in projects aimed at capacity building and assisting higher education institutions in post-conflict countries, most of the initiatives are isolated, small-scale, ad hoc and short-term, without a strategy or framework that consider the long-term impact. In addition, there is no coordination, sharing of experiences and collaboration between institutions that offer assistance. Often, this is due to ‘turf wars’ and competition over funding.


Meaningful assistance

In today’s globalised world, where knowledge is a key driver of growth, socio-economic development and livelihood improvements, countries emerging from violent conflict need immediate, substantial and long-term support to (re)build and reform higher education systems and institutions. Post-conflict countries need to be able to develop university graduates who can contribute to reconstruction, development and the establishment of lasting peace and stability.

Support for rebuilding and reforming higher education in post-conflict settings ‘is key to ensuring more equitable access to better living conditions, increasingly specialised and better-paid jobs, and a more sustainable environment as well as sustainable economic and social development.’ Higher education plays a ‘critical role in developing the knowledge-intensive skills and innovation on which future productivity, job creation and competitiveness depend’ and needs to become one of the post-conflict recovery priorities. The 2015 York Accord sets out important recommendations for protection and rebuilding of higher education systems and institutions in the aftermath of armed conflict.

The reality in many countries affected by conflict is that higher education institutions are not able to provide quality education to the population in the aftermath of war. In such cases, it is inevitable to focus on ‘intervention-style’ assistance which will have to be delivered by external organisations and universities.

In the medium-to-long-run, it is crucial to provide meaningful assistance that can help (re)build physical infrastructure and institutional capacity of the higher education sector so that universities in post-conflict countries can deliver quality education to their populations instead of being dependent on outside assistance.

Higher education institutions from Europe, United States, South Africa and elsewhere can help universities in post-conflict settings through networking, partnering and joint sourcing of funding for projects. International partners can also assist through staff exchange, joint research, student exchange and development of mechanisms for accreditation and quality assurance. Donor funding will be the key in this process. Most universities from the developed and emerging world cannot on their own assist post-conflict countries to build capacity in the higher education sector without support from international donors.

Apart from assisting post-conflict countries and their institutions as part of the academic solidarity and engagement, international partners stand to gain from this involvement. International travel, teaching and research opportunities will help internationalise their academics and staff, who will develop new knowledge, perspectives and competence which can then be utilised in work with students at home institutions.

Changing divisive discourses

Universities and organisations interested in assisting higher education institutions in war-torn countries must be culturally sensitive in their engagement and ensure that they do not impose their own ideas, values and/or ideologies on the recipients of their assistance. Instead, they need to fully understand the societies, systems, problems, needs and challenges and work closely with local actors to design, develop and deliver country-specific projects informed by local needs and challenges. Wherever possible, they should involve local academics and experts in their programmes, thus helping build local capacity in the process.

Apart from the mainstream academic programmes such as economics, engineering and science, it is important to promote programmes that can contribute to stabilisation and peace-building, such as conflict management and peace studies. Peace-building needs to be incorporated into the curriculum in order to develop individuals and institutions capable of changing divisive discourses and contributing to conflict prevention and stabilisation.

Other priorities in the education sector – such as rebuilding primary and secondary education – should not be cut down to accommodate rebuilding and reform of higher education in post-conflict settings. Primary and secondary education are crucial for well-being of any society but they are not enough on their own for development and progress.

Higher education institutions are places where the capacities for innovation, critical thinking, creation of new knowledge and progress are developed. Rebuilding higher education systems and institutions after armed conflict needs to become one of the key priorities as countries cannot move forward and improve living conditions in the long-run without quality higher education.

Dr. Savo Heleta is the manager of Internationalisation at Home and Research at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Office for International Education (OIE) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is also researcher in OIE’s Research Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World. 

This article is a brief summary of a following paper: Heleta, S. 2015. Higher Education in Post-Conflict Societies: Settings, Challenges and Priorities. Handbook Internationalisation of European Higher Education. Vol. 1. 2015. Stuttgart: Raabe Verlag.

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