Britain happy to be back

October 16, 1998

The biggest international gathering on higher education ever took place in Paris last week. David Jobbins reports on how participants saw their role

Britain's re-entry to Unesco was one of the first acts of the incoming Labour government little more than a year ago.

Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for education and employment, told conference delegates in Paris: "It was something I campaigned for in opposition and I am particularly pleased we rejoined in time to play a role in this conference. "It is great to be back," she said.

Britain's delegation included not only Lady Blackstone and George Foulkes, parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of International Development, and key senior officials from both departments, but Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals; David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers; Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England; Clive Booth, chairman of the Teacher Training Agency; and Iona Wakely of the National Union of Students.

In her speech Lady Blackstone appealed to delegates to remember the "glorious diversity" of higher education when drafting what she hoped would be a "punchy" declaration.

"There are no right answers which can be transplanted from one set of circumstances to another - or one country to another. It is vital that higher education is allowed the autonomy to flourish without undue interference."

In his speech, Mr Foulkes told delegates that the DfID was working on Skills for Development, a short course designed to start in 1999. "The constraints to development are often made worse by the lack of access to key skills at the crucial time they are needed - for negotiating, managing, providing leadership -and for technical maintenance of vital equipment," he said.

He also referred to Higher Education Links, involving UK universities in 400 research and teaching projects.

As well as Britain's two ministerial speeches, Lady Blackstone additionally chaired what was generally recognised as one of the ground-breaking sessions which gave student voices an opportunity to be heard.

The United States, which has been outside Unesco since the Reagan era and is unlikely to rejoin in the immediate future, played a key role both in open sessions and behind the scenes.

David Longanecker, US assistant secretary for post-secondary education, followed up US involvement in drafting the declaration and framework for action with a reiteration of President Clinton's determination to rejoin. He told delegates US education secretary Dick Riley had confirmed the US government's intention in talks with Unesco director general Federico Mayor.

Mr Longanecker said US involvement indicated its determination to internationalise its higher education system, building on the 500,000 international students studying in the US each year and the 90,000 Americans studying overseas.

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