Market multilateralism, the world bank group, and the asymmetries of globalizing higher education: toward a critical political economy analysis

Susan L. Robertson

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34 Citations (Scopus)


In the mid 1990s the World Bank orchestrated an historic shift in its education policy platform for developing countries, from one that positioned higher education as a luxury item to one that recognized and supported higher education as a key development priority (World Bank 1994). This reversed a 30-year-old stance toward higher education (Samoff and Carrol 2004, 1). However, by this stage, fragile higher education systems in developing countries had experienced years of underfunding and were in a state of crisis. The Bank used the launch of its 1994 report, Higher Education: the Lessons of Experience, to acknowledge this crisis. and argued that major reform was needed. Subsequently, the reform of higher education has been further legitimated by and incorporated into its “Knowledge For Development” (K4D) and knowledge-economy agendas (cf. World Bank 1996, 2000, 2002). This move might suggest old wrongs would now be put right and that the Bank had finally responded to criticisms of its shortsightedness and an emerging “knowledge gap” (Lauglo 1996; Birdsall 1996, 407). To some observers, however, this reversal of philosophy was one further example of the “shifting sands and partial wisdoms” that characterizes the Bank (Harrison 2005, 29). Hence, while their new “knowledge” agenda affords the Bank a means of keying into broader political and academic trends, thus generating legitimacy, it also enables the Bank to “exculpate itself” from messes that are substantially of its own making (ibid.). There is much to be gleaned from this insight into the Bank’s approach to policy problems more generally; however, they do not encourage us to pay sufficient attention to the historical structures and the transformations in the wider global political economy that shape Bank policy and programs. Issues around governance and their related dynamics have altered the terrain, substance, and basis of legitimacy for the Bank’s role in shaping current higher education policies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Organizations and Higher Education Policy
Subtitle of host publicationThinking Globally, Acting Locally?
EditorsRoberta Malee Bassett, Alma Maldonado-Maldonado
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)0203876660, 9780203876664
Publication statusPublished - 14 Aug 2009
Externally publishedYes

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