For a country to develop, so must its post-secondary institutions

Higher education advocates across Canada and beyond will often claim that academics make an enormous impact on the world beyond the ivory tower, but skeptics are often quick to ask, “How, exactly?” Advocates might then point to social benefits such as advancements in medical technology or the fostering of an engaged democratic citizenry, but another benefit that they might wish to highlight is the impact that higher education is having in developing countries that are looking to build healthier, wealthier, and more just societies for all.  

For Corrie Young, Associate Executive Director for Academics Without Borders, there are countless instances in which post-secondary institutions serve as a key vehicle for global development. “Take rapid urbanization happening in many countries” says Young. “You need to think about how governments at multiple levels are going to try and address the challenges that come with a shift like that. First, you have to design and perform research that gives you accurate information on what is actually happening, then you need the expertise to turn that research into effective policy.”

Young notes that in developing countries where post-secondary institutions are working to build capacity, the expertise necessary for performing this kind of work is not always available. “What you can end up with in some countries is one person who possesses expertise about a specialized issue,” says Young. “Governments can and do use that expertise and may turn it directly into public policy. Now compare that to a country with a highly developed post-secondary system that has the capacity to provide research and expertise to create evidence-based public policy. The same principle applies to any social issue, from public health to civil rights. You’re not just talking about better policy in those scenarios; you’re looking at a better world.”

Young notes that this need for academic capacity building exists across the countless post-secondary institutions that open around the world ever year. “Many of these institutions do not have the resources to assist their young faculty to create and improve their programming, develop pedagogical expertise, and build academic infrastructure,” adds Young. “There is no real vehicle to obtain this necessary support without the help of the world-class academics who work at post-secondary institutions in a country like Canada.” This is why Academics Without Borders was founded with the core mission of working with volunteer academics to help developing countries build capacity at their post-secondary institutions to drive development and improve quality of life for all.

“When I think about what’s drawn me to this work, I think about what drew me to academia in the first place,” notes Arshad Ahmad, vice chancellor of Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences and Academics Without Borders board member. “Expertise is a means, and sooner or later we all ask ourselves: to what end? Making a difference is sometimes hard to measure in developed countries, but can be much more visible in developing countries where most of the world lives.”

Ahmad sees AWB’s work as a crucial part of how Canada is building its reputation as a global leader in education. “AWB speaks to the very essence of how many of us define ourselves as Canadians. There are countless examples of how Canadians have demonstrated their generosity in post-secondary education around the world,” says Ahmad. “This is why many Canadians continue to do their part in ways that speak to the core values of AWB.”

One of the key ways that AWB performs this work is through its Network of member institutions. “AWB’s Network provides transformational experience opportunities to volunteer academics and their institutions that are not likely to otherwise become available,” says Nello Angerilli, chair of the Board of Directors for Academics Without Borders, adding that the Network also “provides funding and pre-placement orientation that is hard to replicate.”

Yet even while AWB’s work has enormous benefits for partners in developing countries, what of its value to Canada’s participating academics? “I can quote a colleague who helped with a project that I led in Indonesia some years ago,” says Angerilli. “She is an environmental toxicologist and after several postings to universities in less developed Eastern Indonesia, she said ‘Nobody should be allowed to teach environmental toxicology in Canada until they have done some work in a country like Indonesia. It is impossible to understand how huge the challenges are, how thinly spread the expertise is, and how little money is available to solve the problems.’” The type of global perspective contained in this example is a fundamental part of all AWB work, and can fundamentally transform the way participating academics conceive of their work and field of study in ways that can have a long-lasting impact on their careers.

With the support of an organization like AWB, it is clear that 21st-century higher education has the potential to build a better world for all while demonstrating the global significance of Canada’s academic experts and institutions. If you are interested in learning more about AWB’s Network and how your school can become involved, please visit AWB’s website. Or if you’d like to speak directly with AWB’s leadership about this valuable opportunity, contact AWB Associate Executive Director Corrie Young here.

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