Elite Education for few better for a developing country than universal elementary education?

Oxfam Blogs has an extremely interesting article that compares the rise of Somaliland vs. the fall of its neighbor Somalia, and points out how this completely upends conventional wisdom regarding foreign aid and other aspects of building a country.

And the aspect I found most interesting there related to education. The paper points out that elite education, available to only a selected few, was found to be more important than universal elementary education – at least in terms of providing the next generation of leadership for the country:

The paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.

Compare and contrast this with what Clay Shirky said a few days ago – that maybe the way forward for higher education is to provide the lower quality of education to a larger number of people at lower cost. Of course Shirky was talking about US, a developed country, while Oxfam is talking about Somaliland, a poor underdeveloped African country, so the situations are quite different. And I certainly don’t claim to know which approach is better. (And I’m sure that the correct answers lies in saying, we should do both.)

But, it is interesting food for thought. If you were forced to pick just one for India going forward, what would you pick – great schools that provide world class education for a few, or universal literacy?

Read the full article.

Source: @makarand_s