David Jobbins reports from Palermo on higher education's preparations for the 1998 Unesco world conference.
EUROPEAN rectors have lent their support to a declaration on the future of Europe's universities which will feed into Unesco's initiative for a global strategy to adapt higher education to the needs of the world in the 21st century.
But the Palermo declaration, drafted at a conference organised by the rectors' organisation and Unesco's Budapest-based European Centre for Higher Education, masks continuing deep-seated divisions over universities' future role and their internal structure.
Industrialists present were horrified to hear the need to change centuries of tradition questioned, while students were outraged when a last-minute attempt to require universities to involve them in decision-making failed.
Federico Mayor, Unesco director general, used the opportunity to argue for reforms to make universities more able to guide governments, particularly in the developing world, on major technological and social issues but to warn against market forces as an agent for such change.
The declaration was reached after three days of sessions involving 400 university vice chancellors and rectors, representatives of staff and students, industrialists, governmental and non-governmental agencies. It stands alongside comparable preparatory conferences for Unesco's world conference in late 1998 already held in Cuba, Senegal and, last month, in Japan.
Delegates compared international experience in four broad areas: teaching and learning; preparation for the world of work; advancement of knowledge through research; and transmission of European cultural values.
The declaration states that universities must contribute to innovation, equitable and sustainable development, and to the culture of peace.
"They should act critically and objectively on the basis of rigour and merit, actively promoting intellectual and moral solidarity by serving individual needs.
"In a world of in-depth transformations, higher education institutions are expected to act responsibly and responsively. They are to foresee, anticipate and influence changes in all quarters of society and be prepared and able to differentiate and adapt accordingly."
The recommendations include:
* creation of a "quality culture" to ensure academic standards and introduction of quality assurance mechanisms at institutional and system level
* more attention to the "student voice" at all stages of the learning process
* pressure on governments to provide adequate funding for basic research infrastructure with funds allocated on quality criteria and transparent auditing procedures
* codes of ethics for the choice and conduct of research projects
* better developed knowledge by universities of employment markets, anticipating needs and becoming aware of competition
* more attention to the employment needs of small and medium-sized enterprises
* incorporation of a "European dimension" as an integral part of teaching and research
The declaration concludes that "a constructive partnership between government, business and industry, and higher education institutions is a critical element in the implementation of an agenda for change in higher education.
"The role of government is expected to shift from bureaucratic control to policy-steering, stable funding formulas, quality monitoring, project-based investment, and providing a cushion against the wilder excesses of the demands of the free market."
Malcolm Webb, human resources manager of the Petrofina oil company in Belgium, warned universities to "brace themselves" for a protracted period of intense competition for students, research contracts, good staff, and in the sale of educational services.
A single European currency would further increase competition in Europe. "This, coupled with the relentless process of globalisation of industry, will expose European higher education to the need to perform excellently on an international stage."
He warned it was important to get on with the change processes and not to risk waiting until universities found change forced on them.
"Long histories and traditions are very fine things - but they are not an assurance of immortality," he told those voices he had heard call to resist change.
The sharpest note of dissent amid a general consensus came from Alessandra Siniscalco, of the Association des Etats Generaux des Etudiants de L'Europe.
"We students do not expect simply to be defined as customers in the higher education market but prefer to consider ourselves part of the production process - a good quality outcome. We would prefer to consider ourselves as a part of the decision-making process."
But Kathryne Vangen, director of the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), failed in a last-minute attempt to alter the declaration to give students a full part in universities' decision-making processes rather than being offered the right to consultation.
In his closing address Dr Mayor called on universities to ensure they kept their essential intellectual values while going through the inevitable change process.
"The university has to face a radical and irreversible reformation of its role I if we create market universities, run purely on market principles, they may be of their age but they will not be able to transcend it.
"If they only chase or adapt to circumstances, rather than fulfilling their anticipatory role, universities will not, any more, be able to shape the future."
He added: "It is up to the people to set the priorities, not the market."
Acknowledging that resources for education were scarce even in the world's richest countries, he drew attention to Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights which states that higher education should be open to all citizens, based exclusively on their capacity to learn and on merit.