Higher education and economic development: The importance of building technological capabilities

Glenda Kruss, Simon McGrath, Il-haam Petersen, Michael Gastrow
  • International Journal of Educational Development, July 2015, Elsevier
  • DOI: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2015.04.011

What is it about?

As part of a larger research project, this paper reports on case study of the interaction between higher education and the automotive and astronomy sectors in South Africa. It argues against a simple human capital argument that all that matters is investment in higher education in general. Rather, it suggests that contexts are crucial. The contexts of different sectors open up certain opportunities to a country like South Africa (e.g., in the astronomy sector where clean skies near to good universities in the Southern Hemisphere was crucial) but also limits possibiities in others (e.g., in the automotive sector where South Africa is far from major markets). The study also stresses the role that intermediary organisations play in linking together supply and demand- neither the market nor the state is enough.

Why is it important?

This research has been given an Elsevier Atlas Award for its potential development importance. Funded by the South African Department of Higher Education, it offers a different approach to thinking about higher education and economic development in policy, practice and theoretical terms. Higher education is expanding rapidly in Africa. Millions more men and women are enrolling in university; according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the number of students enrolled in tertiary education shot up from 6.1 million in 2000 to 12.2 million in 2013. But what does this mean for economic development? Higher education is key to economic development, but the way the two relate is complex. The widely adopted human capital view is that higher education increases skill and knowledge and results in higher income. However, our research argues that economic development is actually deeply contextualized, it’s deeply based in particular sectors, in particular skillsets, in particular firms, in particular countries. As such, there’s got to be a focus on how you build the capability in those spaces to do those things, not just thinking it’s a simple case of investing in education and leaving it to the markets. That will only do so much. Rather, we argue that intermediary organisations that bring together supply and demand are crucial.

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The following have contributed to this page: Professor Simon McGrath