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Why Professions and Higher Education (HE) Matter for Development

By Simon McGrath.

Whilst the attention of the development field has been on Rio+20 this week, I have found myself reflecting on a far less fashionable, but I believe crucial, aspect of development: the role of professions and HE in development.

On this blog, we have recently been arguing that any model of global development goals post-2015 needs to take better account of the importance of education and skills. Here I want to extend that argument more explicitly to higher education and professional learning, reflecting on an UKFIET symposium this week entitled “Higher education, professional learning and African development”.

This event reinforced for me one of the great fallacies of the MDG orthodoxy.  With higher education already condemned by some as elitist and undermined by structural adjustment, the  simplistic human rights discourse of EFA and the MDGs ignored earlier beliefs in the development role of higher education and of professionals.  Of course, higher education is disproportionately accessed by learners from wealthier backgrounds.  Inevitably, many professionals in developing countries put personal gain ahead of community development.  Yet, the orthodox position has forgotten that HE can be a catalyst for development and that many professionals are change agents in favour of development.

What the symposium brought to the fore is some ways in which professionals are part of a development solution and how universities are supporting this.  For instance, we recalled how open educational resources, supported by teacher development interventions, are making a difference to educational quality, one of the hottest topics in education-for-development debates. We considered how focusing on pharmacists’ competencies and capacity development in Schools of Pharmacy might contribute to delivery against key health targets.  We remembered that development projects require managers with both technical skills but also an ability to critically reflect on developmental goals and processes. Other examples included programmes for lawyers, social workers, agricultural extension officers, nurses and journalists – all professionals with a real potential for making development work better.  Moreover, the focus here was on African professionals, not expatriate aid workers.  Genuine ownership of development, of course, cannot reside simply with national professional elites but their involvement in development is crucial if we are to break out of dependency and domination.

This leads me to end with a plea to those debating development goals: please remember that professionals and HE are key to achieving development.

Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development, University of Nottingham, and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. Email:

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3 Responses

  1. Mike

    Good stuff and those who plan development interventions should take note: I am familar with the EU-supported EDULINK and ACP S&T and some – but not many – of the sponsored projects promote the professions and their developmental roles.

    A point is made about ‘African professionals’ as opposed to ‘expatriate aid workers’ and the message is understood. HE is, at least to some degree, international. Professions, while they may have their country codes and local regulations, are in some senses international also. So is this ‘African yes, expat no’ distinction temporary, simply for the focus of one conference even, or is it a permanent dichotomy?

  2. Simon

    Mike, thanks.
    The emphasis on African professionals is partly a reflection of the nature of the event. However, whilst I agree with your point about the desirability of international profession(al)s, I think that national and regional ownership have been undermined by the long-term neglect of HE. Hence, to get to a point where professionals’ origins don’t matter, we need to focus on building professions where they have been neglected.

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