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Like a lot of western Christians, I did a short-term mission trip as a teen overseas to volunteer at a school and it was a deeply transformative experience. Many of my friends’ Facebook profile pictures broadcasted them beside the sweet smiling faces of children in their freshly painted schools, desks gleaming and polished. It’s a feeling that is hard to forget and a means to be involved in, what feels like, positive change. But, unfortunately, very few things are straightforward when it comes to development in low-income countries, including education.

The first time I began to suspect something was wrong with the way the international community is involved in the Global South’s education sector was on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to complete my master thesis research. When I arrived, my cousins – born and raised in East Africa as missionary kids and currently living in Goma, DRC – had mentioned that countries like the DRC didn’t need more schools. They needed good schools. In our conversations, they had mentioned that a heavy focus was being put on quantity and not quality. This was an interesting theory, and it was rooted in the discovery that education correlates with lower birth rates, which robust research has shown, for decades. And with the top countries with the highest birth rate all being in sub-Saharan Africa, it is plausible that quantity is a bigger focus than quality, if the outcome means lower births either way.

A book published by the World Bank titled Accelerating Poverty Reduction in Africa makes it clear that reducing the fertility rate is one of the main pillars in their strategy to reduce poverty. But it seemed cynical to think that producing more schools to reduce fertility was the sole focus of these agencies. Nonetheless, I had a hypothesis forming: if western aid agencies were interested in the quality of schools as much as they were interested in the quantity, there would be due process in assessing learning outcomes of students in the schools that were being supported. Alternatively, a lack of research and data on learning outcomes would suggest the opposite.

As these hypotheses were building subconsciously, I was busy with a much more specific agenda. I was analyzing the learning outcomes of a group of students at a small private Christian university in the province of North Kivu. But I was having a hard time finding sources for my literature review on the general state of higher education in the region. My first thought was that I wasn’t doing a thorough enough search. North Kivu is famous in the development world as being the site of many globally important events including the most recent Ebola crisis. It’s also a bridge between east, central and west Africa. This, and the fact that it’s where most of the world’s coltan comes from (you likely have a piece of Congo in your hands at this very moment, tucked away in your phone’s capacitor) it would be quite surprising if there were no research bodies looking at the state of its higher education. But as time went on, I realized it wasn’t my research methods at fault, but rather a complete lack of published data.

I came across a paper titled Mapping the Field of Research on African Higher Education: A Review of 6483 Publications from 1980 to 2019  published by Zavale and Schneijderberd, and my suspicions were confirmed. A vast majority of the publications on higher education in Africa were based on South Africa and only a handful mentioned the DRC in sweeping cross-regional publications. These researchers had even looked at “hidden” sources not accessible through regular international indexes. Research on higher education in the DRC, and many other sub-Saharan countries, is non-existent. Although there are a few more that can be found on primary and secondary education – the data is still abysmally small. If the hypothesis is that big aid agencies are just as interested in the quality of higher education as they are the quantity of students in them, this was the moment I started to reject it. And I was feeling terribly overwhelmed by the implications of this.

The reason this stirred up so many emotions for me is the same reason that motivated me to go and volunteer as a youth: education is sacred. Any of us who have gone through the anxiety-ridden process of choosing a higher education institution knows that information is everything. There is so much data at our fingertips in the west that it can almost be unhelpful. This information gives children and parents agency in choosing an institution that meets particular tastes and definitions of quality. So, what does it mean if there is fanfare about providing scholarships and aid if students in countries like the DRC are entering “dark” institutions about which there is no information? It could be they are embarking on a phenomenal journey, or it could mean that they are about to waste 3 to 4 years sitting in a classroom learning very little, empty wombs aside.

Another piece to the puzzle surfaced that made this discovery of quantity over quality even worse. For my masters research I was comparing two applied science programs. One was following a traditional model that education scholars deem ineffective: 8-hour lectures, no textbooks or homework assignments and required rote memorization. The newer, reformed program that was replacing this former one, was adopting an inquiry-based learning approach more in line with what western institutions provide. I wanted to compare the students in each program to see if they were demonstrating different levels of scientific literacy. But when I began to dig into the library of past student works in the original program, I found that my question could not be answered; almost the entire student document that I had first picked up was plagiarized – starting with the abstract, which came directly after the declaration of academic honesty, to the concluding paragraph. This pattern continued and when I ran a search, I found that a plethora of publications exist on the “plagiarism problem” in lower income countries. This means that it is well documented that there are systemic issues with the quality of higher education, but aid agencies are content to give in the same way, without implementing something as simple as plagiarism checks.

All of the women in the applied science program, except for this most recent school year, are on full scholarships from a well-known international, faith-based organization. I didn’t have the chance to hear from all the women, but at least one confirmed that it was the financial support and not any particular interest or skill that led to her choosing applied science as a major. In the newer program that did not allow plagiarism, she had not been able to pass and was completing a second year, unable to switch faculties without losing the scholarship. But the scholarship program was not aware or involved with the fact that the newer program had much higher standards than the original. And the newer program’s leaders were facing pressure from the institution to lower the standards so as to acquire more students and the scholarship money they come with.

The dilemma is easy to see: if institutions are dependent on outside funding, it is in their best interest to have students pass their courses whether they are capable or not: if the students fail, the schools lose the student and the scholarship money. And there is also a negative feedback loop in place: fewer students are admitted into the higher quality programs because there are stricter admission requirements. But because the aid institutions haven’t been checking on the quality of the institution, they actually provide more financial aid when the school allows all levels of student to be admitted. Aid institutions are actually perpetuating low quality programs.

A building with desks and professors is not enough to meet the requirements to be called a higher education institution. The small city that I was based in had over 30 universities by some locals’ count; a sign that there is money to be made in the business of education. Actions of funding bodies show ambivalence at best and harmful negligence at worst by not taking stock of the quality of the institutions they support. It is the unfortunate truth that “helping” can hurt and that by funding programs without assessing their legitimacy, these well-meaning scholarships can lead to wasted years for many young people. And the brief two weeks spent hammering in nails and painting walls overseas that many of us have enjoyed may have been more of an endeavor of self-fulfillment, in many cases.

If striving for a lower birth rate is the goal by the organizations in charge, it cannot also be touted that education is being achieved, without the hard work of assessment. By allocating funding towards quality checks, a pivot towards legitimacy can occur. If not, we run the risk of reducing education to merely a complicated contraceptive.

Heather Douglas

Heather Douglas currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland as she finishes the writing portion of her Masters in Biology from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. Her interests include science education and communication as well as conservation and wildlife biology. You can usually find her cycling around the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, stopping to snap pictures of bugs and trees.