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The impact of tertiary education on development: a rigorous literature review

What do we want to know?

This rigorous review sought to answer the question: What is the impact of tertiary education (TE) on economic growth and development in low- and lower-middle-income countries (LLMICs)? 

Who wants to know and why?

After a long period in which the international development community placed emphasis on primary education, there is now renewed interest in supporting tertiary education. However, the extent and nature of the impact of TE on development remains unclear. This review, commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), attempted to contribute to ongoing debates around the importance of TE for development by synthesising empirical evidence of TE impact on a comprehensive range of development outcomes in LLMICs. As a secondary objective, the review also aimed to expose gaps in the existing evidence base, in order to inform the development of future research programmes in this area.

What did we find?

While there is a large body of literature on TE in LLMICs, the majority of studies focus on the characteristics of TE systems and institutions or on the short-term effects of interventions. We found relatively few studies (99 in total) showing empirical evidence of TE impact on development in LLMICs.

The majority of the studies that were identified were econometric in nature, using panel data for multiple countries and cross-sectional data for single-country studies. Within this literature, there is strong evidence of TE impact on the earnings of graduates in LLMICs. In terms of macro-level economic benefits, there is evidence that TE has a stronger impact on growth than was previously assumed. The impact of TE on income equality is more difficult to isolate and appears to vary significantly, depending on context. Evidence of economic impact is most robust at the individual level, with macro-level relationships being harder to identify, largely due to methodological differences between studies and likely barriers to impact in many contexts.

A number of studies show a positive impact of tertiary-level study on graduates’ capabilities and the strengthening of institutions (both formal organisations and social norms). Impact was shown in areas of health, nutrition, gender equality, democratisation and the environment.

What are the conclusions?

Three main conclusions can be derived from the review:

  1. There is a significant lack of research into the impact of TE on development. Studies are needed, in particular, to show how inputs and interventions to TEIs and systems are related to different forms of outcome and levels of impact.
  2. The returns to TE have been underestimated. There is evidence to suggest that TE may provide greater impact on economic growth than lower levels of education. However, all levels of education are interdependent and must be addressed holistically.
  3. TE provides a range of broader, measurable benefits to graduates, relating to health, gender equality and democracy, among other areas. In addition, it contributes to the strengthening of institutions, and the forming of professionals in key areas, such as education and healthcare. The diverse functions of the university, in addition to its direct impact on economic growth, should be acknowledged and supported.

How did we get these results?

After a search of bibliographic databases, institutional websites and existing literature reviews, 6,677 studies were screened on title and abstract, and, subsequently, a reduced number (668) screened on full text. Included studies had to meet the criteria of providing empirical evidence of the impact of TE, relating to LLMICs; be in English; and have been published since 1990. By the end of the screening phases, 147 studies had been identified as being relevant to the main research question. All studies were then appraised for quality (data source, sampling, rigour of analysis, soundness of conclusion, etc.); a further 48 studies were consequently excluded on the basis of lack of methodological rigour. Synthesis of the evidence from the remaining 99 studies was then completed, drawing on the principles of framework synthesis.   

The EPPI Centre reference number for this report is 2205. This report should be cited as:

Oketch M, McCowan T, Schendel R (2014) The impact of tertiary education on development: a rigorous literature review. London: Department for International Development.

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