The impact of tertiary education on development. Education rigorous literature review.


After a long period in which the international development community has placed emphasis on primary education, there is now renewed interest in tertiary education (TE). However, the extent and nature of the impact of TE on development remains unclear. This rigorous review seeks to address this question in the context of low- and lower-middle-income countries (LLMICs).

A conceptual framework was developed in order to structure the review of literature. Drawing on theories relating TE to human-capital development, endogenous development, capabilities and institutional growth, multiple potential pathways to impact were identified. These pathways lead to improvements in 5 forms of outcome: earnings, productivity, technological transfer, capabilities and institutions. A rigorous review of relevant literature was undertaken, drawing on the principles of framework synthesis. The 99 studies included in the final analysis were categorised according to the 5 outcomes: earnings (66), productivity (13), technology transfer (8), capabilities (24) and institutions (13) (some studies were placed in more than one category).

This report presents the review findings and discusses the implications for future research. It begins with a discussion of the conceptual framework used to guide the study, before outlining the methodology used to select and screen evidence. The study findings are then presented thematically. In addition to analysis of the synthesised evidence, there is a supplementary discussion of the barriers to impact. The report also includes a brief analysis of how external aid to TE in LLMICs has been used in attempts to increase the impact of the sub-sector. A discussion of the implications of the study findings concludes the report.

Three main conclusions were 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.


Oketch, M.; McCowan, T.; Schendel, R. The impact of tertiary education on development. Education rigorous literature review. Department for International Development (DFID), London, UK (2014) 123 pp.

Published 1 January 2014