Higher education, developmental leadership and good governance


What impact has higher education had on developmental leadership and on good governance?


The available literature suggests, first, that there is no established causal pathway connecting higher education, developmental leadership and good governance. Recent studies have found a general pattern of positive correlation between levels of enrolment in higher education and indicators of good governance, but debates continue as to:

  • the ability of individual leaders and developmental coalitions to effect change in the presence of powerful structural constraints to reform;
  • the extent to which education alters individual values and socio-political participation in relation to other factors, like family, religion, peer group and socio-economic background;
  • the impact of higher education independent of other factors. Case studies of Ghana and the Philippines produced by the DLP, for example, show convincingly that the contribution of higher education to developmental leadership is also a function of secondary and primary education.

Second, the relationships among higher education, developmental leadership and good governance are highly complex and context-specific. The evidence is sparse and anecdotal, but it appears that some kinds of higher education promote developmental leadership, while others hinder the emergence of dynamic leaders committed to development. Universities foster developmental leadership when:

  • they operate according to principles of meritocracy and inclusion;
  • they teach a broad and comprehensive curriculum through interactive and student-focused pedagogies. Most developmental leaders hold degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This calls into question the recent emphasis on supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects;
  • they promote opportunities for leadership training and practice through extracurricular activities (such as community work, political science societies, student councils and student newspapers);
  • they provide role models and a new social environment and peer group. Mentorship and shared living experiences are helpful in this sense;
  • they model an environment of good governance in their leadership and governance structures;
  • they encourage the creation of heterogeneous networks by encouraging social, religious, ethnic and economic mixing as well as providing scholarships to study abroad. To avoid fostering predatory and extractive networks, universities should inject a strong value base and emphasise inclusivity.

Unfortunately, the studies examined suggest that higher education most often entrenches rather than erodes existing patterns of power and inequality, hampering the emergence of transformative and developmental leaders. For example, students from elite socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to access and succeed at elite universities whilst others are permanently excluded (as people with disabilities in sub-Saharan Africa). Similarly, universities’ governance structures do not model democratic practice due to low transparency, authoritarian management and political appointments, and the leadership of universities is not reflective of the diversity of gender, nationality, ethnicity, ability and language of the student body.


Suggested citation

Fontana, G. (2017). The impact of higher education on developmental leadership and on good governance. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.