A quality higher education system, vibrant private sector, and supportive government policy are all important elements of a strong and resilient economy. Too often, however, a lack of collaboration between these sectors creates inefficiencies and missed opportunities. By investing in and aligning these potent forces, countries such as El Salvador can improve innovation, transform their economies, and foster economic growth while preventing a “brain drain” of skilled workers.
El Salvador has the lowest level of public investment in higher education in all Central America. There are few structural or market incentives for universities to offer programs relevant to market needs, resulting in a persistent skills mismatch. Instructors lack knowledge about industry trends and have few connections with local employers, and are thus unaware of in-demand competencies. Salvadoran industry reports difficulty in finding new hires with realistic career expectations; workplace professionalism; and the appropriate level of soft, technical, and English skills.
Implemented by RTI International, the five-year, $22 million USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth project seeks to improve economic development in El Salvador by strengthening the higher education sector and creating alliances between universities, the private sector, and government institutions to develop demand-driven educational programs and research. The project improves the quality of human and institutional capacity in El Salvador’s higher education sector, promotes innovation and technological development in priority industrial sectors, establishes career development centers and links curricula to real world applications. It also supports the development of the country’s first national policy on higher education.
At the core of the project are four industry/higher education “clusters,” formal alliances between the private sector and universities that spur collaboration. These clusters are focused on economic sectors with high growth potential: Information and Communications Technology (ICT); Energy and Energy Efficiency; Light Manufacturing; and Agro-Industry and Food Processing. Each cluster is composed of an industry association, a group of universities (including a lead anchor and participating associates), government representatives, and an advisory board of prominent business people, academics, and administrators.
Successfully Linking Higher Education, the Private Sector, and Government
In 2017, only three years into its five-year mandate, USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth achieved significant results. The four clusters are fully functional, and engagement between industry, higher education, and policymakers has significantly increased. Among the highlights:
- More than 400 faculty and staff from Salvadoran universities—a significant portion of the country’s leading business and science faculty—participated in specialized training in 2017, with an emphasis on industry-recognized, high-demand fields and 21st-century pedagogy. To date, 747 faculty and staff have undergone training, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the five-year target. University faculty have demonstrated significant improvements in various competencies, including teaching techniques, incorporating industry needs in classroom lectures, drafting scientific articles and research publications, and collaborating productively with other faculty members.
- Salvadoran universities, with the input of the private sector via the clusters, created or upgraded 16 degree programs to be more responsive to the needs of industry. Also, close coordination with the Ministry of Education’s Dirección Nacional de Educación Superior fast-tracked the approval of new or innovative degree programs in the ICT and Energy and Energy Efficiency clusters in record time.
- Project-facilitated applied research initiatives are improving the production efficiency of exports like coffee and augmenting energy generation using local waste. These innovations will have a broad impact on the international competitiveness of Salvadoran industries. Importantly, each research initiative is required to engage with an industry partner that brings cash or in-kind leverage. Several universities also formed partnerships with U.S. universities, including Rutgers, the University of Florida and Purdue.
- The project brought together leaders from the higher education sector and government in a highly participatory process to draft El Salvador’s first National Policy on Higher Education. This policy raises the importance of higher education within the full education system. It seeks to strengthen the system’s quality, increase use of technology, and build its capacity to generate the knowledge and critical thinking needed to promote economic development.
- Career development centers set up by the project are creating institutional change at universities, which are now equipped to provide their students valuable career counseling and linkages to jobs. More than 2,000 students (half of them female) participated in career-related workshops. Career-development centers set up by the project organized three employment fairs in which more than 1,300 students participated, and the Universidad Catolica de El Salvador (anchor university for the Agroindustry and Food Processing cluster) signed three agreements with local private-sector companies to support internships and other initiatives that include experiential and/or applied learning opportunities.
- The project established the Network of Female Leaders in Higher Education, the first inter-institutional collaboration among universities and the Ministry of Education in El Salvador. This Network has garnered significant interest from universities and the media, and will encourage the contributions of women to science and technology while providing better conditions for young women to access higher education (mainly in STEM careers). It will also promote and create conditions that allow the strengthening of gender balance within universities to detect, prevent and tackle gender inequalities.
Building an Economically Competitive Future
RTI has experienced first-hand how collaboration between higher education, the private sector, and government can spur economic growth. We were founded with support from state government, education, and business leaders as part of an initiative to create a hub for research, innovation and technology in one of the poorest states in the United States. In 2016, a high-level delegation from Salvadoran government, academia, and the private sector visited RTI's home in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park to learn about the region’s model of innovation, transformation, and economic growth.
El Salvador’s future is also brightening. We envision that by the end of the USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth project in 2019, we will have helped to develop a high-functioning system in El Salvador in which universities work closely with industry partners, faculty members are rewarded for their advanced teaching skills and industry-relevant expertise, and public policy supports these and other improvements. Further, students will be equipped with the skills needed to succeed in the workplace; degree programs will be more closely tied to the needs of local industry; and universities will have the knowledge, motivation, and funding to conduct applied research—all of which will help make El Salvador a more globally competitive and economically successful nation.