A Conversation With the World Bank’s Higher Ed Leader

WASHINGTON – Francisco Marmolejo serves as the World Bank’s focal point on higher education, and provides advice and support to projects that the bank has in more than 60 countries. Officially, he is the World Bank’s lead tertiary education specialist and coordinator of its network of higher education specialists.

Previously, he served as the founding executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (Conahec), a network of 160 colleges and universities in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. He was based at the University of Arizona, where he was also an assistant vice president. A well-known figure in international higher education circles who has visited universities in 65 countries, Marmolejo is always cheerful despite a schedule that would be daunting even for many travel veterans. He met the Al Fanar editors early in the morning at a café close to the World Bank headquarters here. Marmolejo spoke about his personal fascination with international higher education as well as the challenges that both World Bank and countries in the Middle East and North Africa region are facing now. –Rasha Faek

Al Fanar: How and why have you made a career out of global higher education?

FM: Frankly, I became involved in international education mostly by accident. I was born and raised in Ojuelos de Jalisco, a small rural town in central Mexico where I never imagined that someday I would be spending most of my time traveling the world to learn about the similarities and peculiarities of higher education.

My first formal introduction to international higher education occurred back in Mexico more than 20 years ago when I was working as vice president at the University of the Americas, a private higher education institution located in Mexico City. There I met a professor from the University of Arizona who was visiting our institution. He made me aware of the great opportunities to participate in international exchanges for students and professors. As it turned out, I was one of the first individuals to go on exchange to the U.S.. I was the first Mexican who joined the American Council on Education Fellows program and I realized for the first time how important it was to learn a second language. Moreover, I learned to value the important differences that exist among higher education systems and the need to build academic bridges.

During my fellowship year I lost my job in Mexico, where I was supposed to go back after finishing my study. That’s when I received a call from the University of Arizona asking me to lead a short-term project to connect institutions in Mexico. [Later, this project became Conahec.]

Al Fanar: Did your family play a role in this?

FM: In my family, being international meant going from our small town to the city. Yet, my older brother who was working in the U.S. at that time played a big role in encouraging and supporting my parents to give us the opportunity to complete university education.

Now, my oldest son is working in India after he finished his education in the U.S., France and Turkey. Also, my second son is studying international affairs in the U.S. after studying in South Korea. As you notice, we are all in love with international higher education.

Al Fanar: Could you explain more about the World Bank’s interest in the higher education?

FM: The World Bank has a new strategy for education which lays out a ten-year agenda focused on the crucial goal of “learning for all.” Learning for all means ensuring that all children and youth—not just the most privileged or the smartest—can not only go to school, but also acquire the knowledge and skills that they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment.

The three pillars of our strategy are: Invest early. Invest smartly. Invest for all. This new strategy enables countries to recognize that education is the best investment the society can make for the future and to make sure that this investment works it should happen early, smartly and consider all people. Compared to a decade ago, far fewer children in developing countries are now [dropping out]of school. Yet, major challenges of access remain for disadvantaged populations with one billion people around the world living below the poverty line.

Al Fanar: There is a lot of suspicion about the World Bank motives especially in MENA region. Why is that?

FM: Absolutely, there is a history of suspicion about the role of the bank. Some accused us of imposing policies and pushing governments to act in one specific way.

According to my previous experience as a consultant and now as coordinator for higher education I could say that this is not the case. The World Bank doesn’t impose any policies. Our work is based on priorities defined by the governments. In recent years, the bank has moved from being just a loan agency into much more of a knowledge-based organization. We do not provide only money; we provide technical assistance and experts from all the world.

I used to write many reports and no one has asked me to change anything. I have enjoyed complete independence.

We are very sensitive about these complains and accusations. We try to work in more humble way. We are more interested now in getting experts from the countries we work with. We are not interested in just classifying countries. At the end, it is up to each country to decide what is best for its nation and to define its priorities.

Al Fanar: What do you see as the main challenges of higher education in the MENA Region?

FM: The big challenge is access to higher education. The proportion of young people in the region is very high. There is a big need for more efforts to increase their access to higher education. On the other hand, there is a limited social recognition about the need for some diversity in higher education disciplines. Most of the parents in the region want their children to be doctors or engineers, while technical and vocational education are not socially valued. Also, there is a wide gap between the outputs of universities and the real needs of the labor market. Moreover, higher-education regulations and policies need to be more flexible and more focused on quality assurance.

Al Fanar: What strong points does the region have already?

FM: Knowledge and advanced skills are critical determinants of any country’s economic growth and standard of living. Now, the region is very rich with youth and also with diverse cultures, which could be a great strength for economic development and creating unique education systems. I also have to mention that there is more attention now from the governments to the role of quality in education.

Al Fanar: You have travelled a lot, visited many campuses around the world and talked to educators in many countries. How do you compare the MENA region to what you have seen in other parts of the world?

FM: Students are the same everywhere. Eagerness to get more knowledge and have better living conditions are [fundamental] human demands. Yet, in the MENA region there are still many basic challenges that should be solved as a priority, such as limited educational resources relative to the large number of students; limited access related to gender equality, and the great need to create job opportunities for youth.

Al Fanar: Has the World Bank interest in education in MENA region changed in response to the Arab uprising?

FM: Of course the events of the Arab spring could not be denied; unemployment was a leading cause, as we witnessed in Tunisia. Education should have done more to ensure people were ready for the workplace. Building on the demands of the Arab spring and the reform efforts underway, the World Bank has developed a new framework that includes strengthening governance, increasing social and economic inclusion, accelerating sustainable growth and creating jobs, including for youth and women. [That would be done] by creating a clear path from school to work, providing an enabling environment for opportunity, competition, innovation and entrepreneurship. Achieving improvements in these fields can stimulate economic growth and help to stem the outward flow of highly skilled human capital by supporting cultures of quality and productivity.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Francisco Marmolejo’s blogs about international higher education for The Chronicle of Higher Education are listed here.

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