Universities play a key role in a world strategy for lifelong education drawn up by Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, and a 14-person panel commissioned by Unesco to reflect on education and learning for the next century.
Their report, Learning: The Treasure Within, calls for more resources for education and makes recommendations for lifelong education. It follows three years' deliberations on the type of education needed for the 21st century, involving worldwide consultations with experts.
Lifelong learning is presented as an answer to the "tension" between competition and equal opportunities. "The concept of learning throughout life . . . goes beyond the traditional distinction between initial and continuing education. It meets the challenges posed by a rapidly changing world," explains Mr Delors in his introduction. A system of "credits" enabling young people to re-enter the education system if they drop out early is recommended, as is a "learning society" giving adults much broader access to further study.
"Every university should become an 'open' university," notes the report, offering distance teaching and learning at "various points in time".
Traditional courses should be complemented by vocational training and "personal development courses". In calling for lifelong learning, the Delors Commission warns that the "general increase in the desire to learn . . . must not conceal the increased risk of inequality that goes with it". It argues that only "energetic measures" to correct inequalities can ensure the learning society really is for everyone.
The report emphasises that universities have international as well as national responsibilities. "One of the urgent tasks facing the university community in the wealthier regions is to devise ways to accelerate cooperation and to help build up research capacity in the less-developed countries," it notes.
On higher education funding, the commission "stresses the important role played by public funds" and warns that "private financing must not be allowed to threaten the nature and existence of higher education in developing countries".